As suggested by its ubiquitous trailer, "Message in a Bottle" is mostly the kind of Hollywood product tailor-made for the label "chick flick," a rather ungenerous and sexist classification that's nonetheless seeded with truth. Lonely hearts find each other, as a hunky, rather distant man's-man with a tragic past drops his defenses for the right woman. A relationship flowers, wilts and then blooms again. Love finds a way. Pass the Kleenex.
To their credit, director Luis Mandoki and screenwriter Gerald DiPego have fashioned from Nicholas Sparks' best seller a movie that rises several notches above Harlequin Romance hell. That's thanks in large part to the believable, nicely shaded performances of Kevin Costner, back in heroic mode, the underappreciated Robin Wright Penn and Paul Newman, acing the competition as the screen's funniest wise old codger.
Costner, who could use a hit after the disastrously bloated "The Postman," is Garret, the stud with a past, an earthy boat builder for hire from coastal North Carolina who can't quit grieving over the loss of his wife, Catherine. She was a talented painter who chose husband and family over an art career in New York. Newman is Dodge, Garret's crusty pop, a recovering alcoholic and his son's best friend. Penn is Theresa, a single mother still reeling from a painful divorce but deeply absorbed in her work as a research assistant at the Chicago Tribune.
The airwaves were the conduit for a sad widower's plea to the world in "Sleepless in Seattle," and a Manhattan woman was summoned to his houseboat as a result. This time, it's the sea -- a passion for both lovers -- that links a city gal to her mystery man at the shore.
While jogging on the beach during a vacation to Cape Cod, she discovers a bottle buried in the sand. A letter, rolled up inside the glass vessel, describes a man's passion for a lost lover. "You were my true north," writes an author who signs his letter, simply, "G." Maybe this is Harlequin territory.
Theresa, back at her bustling Windy City office, shows her discovery to her boss (Robbie Coltrane), an opportunist who publishes the letter in his column. At his behest, she employs the magic of high-tech detective work, and a little cinematic suspension of disbelief, to track down her man. Clues include the manufacturer of the bottle, the make of the manual typewriter used in the letter and the store where the stationery was sold. (If the genders were reversed, wouldn't someone be accused of stalking?)
The two meet, exchange sad stories and immediately indulge in gorgeously photographed quality time involving sunny sailing expeditions, long walks on the beach, endless cups of coffee and lots of snuggling by the fireplace. Garret visits Chicago, takes Theresa's young son, Jason (Jesse James), for a boating expedition on Lake Michigan and makes everyone happy.
Reality intrudes, though, when Garret accidentally discovers that his girlfriend's appearance in his home town was no accident. He also learns of the existence of a letter written by his wife and immediately returns home to again wallow in his grief.
Will the two lovers reunite? Will true love save the day? Will Garret prove himself a true hero? Will he realize his dream of designing and building his own boat? Let's just say that the colorful Dodge, not the bland Garret, gets my vote for the guy who should have won the girl. Even if there is a 150-year age difference, as Dodge jokingly describes it. That never stopped the President or any of our other favorite A-list actors.
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