The life of director Brad Silberling has been marked by twin tragedies: (1) His fiancee, actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was murdered by a crazed fan; and (2) he made "City of Angels." Sadly, both experiences figure into "Moonlight Mile," the star-studded but tonally askew Hallmark card of a healing sermon that Silberling has contributed to this year's batch of pseudo-serious Oscar bait.
"Mile" is set in the Massachusetts of the early 1970s, where two parents (Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon) are mourning the loss of their recently slain daughter -- and her fiance, Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), is mulling what place he can have in their world with her gone. The movie, which begins mere days after the girl's death, gets off on the wrong foot almost immediately, depicting all three leads as unaccountably chipper in the immediate aftermath of such horrendous calamity. By the time Silberling (who also wrote the script) gets around to acknowledging that this situation may denote serious denial, we've long since learned to keep our emotional distance from what we've been perceiving as a bunch of ghouls.
Hoffman's Ben Floss endeavors to keep Joe close at hand (and, perhaps, his daughter's memory alive) by involving the boy in his real-estate business. But Joe appears more interested in getting to know Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), a barkeep/postal worker who helps him retrieve his now-useless wedding invitations from a pile of outgoing mail. (If she even asks to see his I.D., I sure didn't see it.) About 43 minutes into the movie, a mystery is raised that gives the story some needed pull, but that's a hell of a long time to wait while subsisting on a diet of improbably sunny mourning that makes any given episode of TV's "Six Feet Under" look like "The Mask of the Red Death."
Still, little of what goes on in "Moonlight Mile" is flat-out awful -- just inappropriate. Sarandon's JoJo Floss is depicted as unable to get through a sentence without emitting some sort of earthy cuss word, a quality that's supposed to make her accessible but comes across as merely unpleasant. An angry confrontation between JoJo and Ben lays bare the thematic debt the movie owes to "In the Bedroom,"; that film, however, didn't make use of a vomiting family dog named Nixon. (This one does.) You yourself will barf when the story lurches toward a treacly courtroom speech -- the dead girl's murder, see, has yet to be avenged by the legal system. This poorly integrated plot thread also allows for a frankly ridiculous cameo by Holly Hunter as a crusading assistant district attorney. No filmmaker's lunge for an Academy Award is complete before he shoehorns a talented actress into a thankless role as a lady lawyer. (Remember Michelle Pfeiffer in "I Am Sam"?)
The award speculation however, has mostly centered on Hoffman, who is admittedly never less than worth watching. There's been some talk about Silberling allegedly structuring his movie to conform to the five stages of grief, but the storyline is so disconnected that Hoffman instead seems to play five different characters in the course of two hours. On the plus side, I enjoyed just about every one of them. Does this mean he's eligible for all five Best-Actor nominations?