FILM

Sailing choppy seas

Moviegoers can choose laughter, tears or blood

Brian D. Johnson February 15 1999
FILM

Sailing choppy seas

Moviegoers can choose laughter, tears or blood

Brian D. Johnson February 15 1999

Sailing choppy seas

Moviegoers can choose laughter, tears or blood

Choosing a movie can be a bewildering decision. What is it going to be tonight? Weepy romance, brutal carnage or corny comedy? Here are the latest candidates:

Message in a Bottle is a studio product, a big, plush Pooh Bear of a movie that plays like a stereotypical chick flick. This is the kind of movie that makes even the most sensitive man want to run screaming out of the theatre. It offers a full-course candlelight-and-wine courtship: the experience of slowly falling in love with a silent hunk of a boatbuilder who has a beach house full of light. Like You’ve Got Mail, Message in a Bottle is a romance triggered by anonymous correspondence, but in this case the lovers connect by sea mail, not e-mail.

While on vacation, Theresa (Robin Wright Penn) finds a bottle on a beach that contains a passionate love letter typewritten by a man to his deceased wife. Theresa, a researcher at a Chicago newspaper, tracks down the author in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where he turns out to be a sailboat builder named Garret (Kevin Costner). Pretending to bump into him by accident, Theresa surrenders to romance, never finding the right moment to tell him the truth—which, inevitably, he will discover at the worst possible moment.

Based on the recent best-seller by American novelist Nicholas Sparks, Message in a Bottle has a daydreamy emptiness. Much of the film unfolds like a soporific first date, a

progression of awkward moments and shy explorations. Robin Wright Penn, a sublime actress, transcends every scene she is in, eking a real character out of the script’s thin fantasy. But Costner is another story. Playing a monosyllabic mariner—a waterlogged hermit of the high seas who says, with a straight face, “I don’t go inland”—he still seems marooned in Waterworld. And his performance as a Harlequin love object is as wooden as the boats his character builds. Garret is another one of those rustic horsewhisperer types, a sailor with a taste for salt who knows where to love a woman even when she protests that she has not showered.

But he is such a dope, the kind of guy who says, “I make great steak —it’s the best thing I do” without a glimmer of irony.

Paul Newman offers relief in a small but pithy role as Garret’s curmudgeonly father, Dodge, who tries to prod his son out of his laconic stupor (although it looks more like Newman is just irritated to be in such a slow-witted movie). Dodge is a dad in denial, evading an alcoholic past, and there are hints of father-son abuse. But the script is foggy on details, just as it never explains the death of Garret’s wife, except to say “pregnancy kicked the stuffing right out of her.” Huh? Maybe details would just get in the way. With director Luis Mandoki (When a Man Loves a Woman) at the helm, Message

FILM

Brian D. Johnson

in a Bottle is an empty vessel designed to fill up with flotsam sentiments about death and undying romance. It is an endless movie about endless love. A tidal bore.

Another Day in Paradise, on the other hand, is anything but dull. Watching it is like getting jabbed in the eye with a dirty syringe—but one that packs such an adrenaline kick it is almost worth the pain. Based on the novel by American writer Eddie Little— which he wrote while in prison— Paradise is a gritty independent film, an outlaw road movie that takes a graphic excursion into an underworld of junkie bandits and teenage delinquents. Director Larry Clark, notorious for his documentary-like portrayal of teenage sexuality in Kids (1995), shoots the world of drugs and guns in the same hyper-realist style. And he seeks out sensation with the same sense of soulless voyeurism. But there is no denying the power of the performances.

James Woods and Melanie Griffith portray Mel and Sid, a criminal couple who adopt two teenage outlaws, Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner). The movie plays like Bonnie and Clyde as a family vacation, with Woods and Griffith serving as perfect white-trash parents. The camera adores Kartheiser, who has the indolent charm and delicate look of Leonardo DiCaprio. And Wagner, daughter of actress Natalie Wood, is equally compelling. But it takes a strong stomach to make it through a movie that begins with a kid plunging a long blade into the chest of a security guard who has beaten him to a pulp for robbing a vending machine. Or to watch Griffith jam a needle into her neck.

It is enough to make a viewer seek refuge in Blast from the Past, a romantic comedy about an innocent named Adam (Brendan Fraser) who falls in love with Eve (Alicia Silverstone) after spending all 35 years of his life cocooned with his parents in a fallout shelter. It is not as bad as it sounds. Director Hugh Wilson (The First Wives Club) goes to imaginative lengths to make the premise seem credible. The family bunker, with a fish farm and hydroponic gardens, is a feat of art direction. Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek are amusing as Adam’s suburban-gothic parents. And Fraser has a slap-happy energy as the big-hearted naïf fumbling through the ’90s. Of course, the high-concept premise wears thin. And the glamorization of Fifties banality points to an alarming trend in pop culture. But as a sweet, innocuous confection, Blast from the Past offers a safe escape from real life—and other movies.