Schlock and Load

An expert soap opera and a decent crap thriller.

Message in a Bottle
Directed by Luis Mandoki
Warner Bros.

Directed by Brian Helgeland
Paramount Pictures

You know what sort of movie Message in a Bottle will be from its opening montage. A shimmery orange sunset over water. Waves in slow motion, crashing. Rain on the ocean. Floating on the bubbly: a bottle. Fade to puffy clouds. Then, a woman, Theresa (Robin Wright Penn), jogs along an empty beach and spies that bottle. She kneels down and removes it–gingerly, tenderly–from the wet sand. Now here’s the clincher, the holy touch: She pats the sand on the beach back down. Good sand. Blessed sand.

She’d probably have said a prayer, except she’s too busy reading the missive in the bottle, which has been lovingly composed on a manual typewriter. “Dear Catherine,” it begins. “I’ve lostmy bearings. I’ve never been lost before.” The fog rolls in. Theresa is hooked. “I’m sorry I didn’t hold you with so much strength that even God couldn’t pull you away.” As a friend of Theresa’s sums it up, “Every woman in the world wants to be loved like that.”

Who is this supremely sensitive and poetically pining paramour? I trust I’m not spoiling the surprise when I tell you that he’s top-billed Kevin Costner, complete with sandy hair and a slightly deeper tan than the one he sported as a golf pro in Tin Cup. He bears the Harlequin moniker “Garret Blake” and works on boats in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and speaks with winsome gentleness–but he can throw a punch when he has to. Not that he has to around Theresa, who traces him through his stationery and shows up pretending that she’s interested in boats. The one he’s shining up now is a beauty, but it wasn’t always that way. Garret: “She was neglected, unappreciated.” Theresa: “I know how she feels.” Garret (taking her in): “I doubt it.” The last is said in a courtly fashion, because Garret is no lech. He’s too busy poetically pining for his lost Catherine, and it’s difficult to lech and pine poetically simultaneously.

These are two extraordinarily beautiful, literate, soulful, kindly, lonely people of roughly the same age. The challenge facing screenwriter Gerald DiPego is to create impediments enough to keep them apart for two hours or so. Issues must be left hanging: Where is Catherine, anyhow? Why does a belligerent yokel (John Savage) want to bust Garret’s head? Most momentously: When will Theresa tell Garret that she first came poking around his boat because she’d found his letter and already knew the depth of his heart? When he stumbles on the truth, will he feel violated? Will he storm out into a pouring rain? Will she pursue him, pleading, weeping, trying to explain that it was God who threw that bottle out of the sea and into her path? Will Garret manage to put Catherine behind him before he loses Theresa too, or will fate keep them tragically separated?

Whether you attend Message in a Bottle with a hankie or a vomit bag depends, of course, on your own predilections. Mine run less toward schlock romances than schlock thrillers but, hey, I can recognize an expertly engineered, inspirational soap opera when I see one. The movie, based on a best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks, preys on the unsatisfied longings in us all; were it to satisfy any of them too quickly its spell would evaporate in a second. It’s probably just as well for the film’s commercial prospects that the director, Luis Mandoki (When a Man Loves a Woman), does not appear to have a mind with multiple tracks. He and his great cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, focus all their energy and resources on the task of lyrically withholding your gratification.

It’s no mystery why this vehicle appealed to Costner, who also co-produced the picture: The woman does all the emoting, while the man–passive, overly contained–reaps the rewards. Robin Wright Penn emotes well. She’s a good, no-nonsense actress who can disappear into a part and whose beauty needs no Hollywood embellishment. But there’s nothing distinctive about her–no funky residues of personality that signal the difference between a gorgeous actress and a movie star. She and Costner are meant to be elemental in their attractiveness, but they also demonstrate that there’s a perilously thin line between the elemental and the simple-minded.

What a waste to use colorful actors such as Illeana Douglas and Robbie Coltrane as blah second bananas. And what could have possessed the movie-makers to cast the topmost of top bananas, Paul Newman, as Costner’s dad–a crotchety, albeit caring, voice of wisdom? Yes, I’d rather watch Newman than, say, Wilford Brimley, but the real tragedy here is reducing Newman to hovering on the periphery and delivering old codger lines such as “Young lady, if I were 150 years younger …”? If Message in a Bottle is finally about holding onto what’s most dear before it’s too late, shouldn’t we be chucking Costner into the briny and clinging to Newman?

If Message in a Bottle plays like an inflated Harlequin romance, Payback plays like an inflated Pocket Books pulp. Based on Richard Stark’s The Hunter, the same novel that provided narrative fodder for John Boorman’s avant-garde noir Point Blank (1967), Payback has a syntax much more old-fashioned than its predecessor. In more or less linear fashion, it tells the story of a violent thief, Porter (Mel Gibson), who, left for dead after a double-cross, re-emerges with an implacable determination to avenge himself on his ex-partner, Val (Gregg Henry), and reclaim some $70,000 that is rightfully his–rightfully in the sense that he’s the one who actually stole it.

Payback sounded like a good time. The director and co-writer, Brian Helgeland, also co-wrote L.A. Confidential (1997) and gave Gibson one of his wildest roles ever in his script for Conspiracy Theory (1997)–which the actor hit out of the park, striking a note of authentic paranoia that put him leagues ahead of most action stars. Gibson’s pretty good in Payback, too. Where Lee Marvin in Point Blank was an automaton, Gibson oscillates between bug-eyed monomania and hangdog embarrassment. When he realizes, for instance, that he has no choice but to bust someone’s head, he prefaces the brutal act with a look of weariness, even sorrow, for the blood he’s about to draw.

G od help me, I had a decent time at Payback. But I don’t offer that admission proudly–it’s more in the spirit of “Look how debased my taste has become after decades of sitting through crap thrillers.” The shambling Gibson beats people’s heads in, gets his own head beaten in, beats some more people’s heads in, and drives away. The end. Helgeland has set the film in a metropolis of uncertain period (the ‘50s? the ‘60s?) and has kept The Hunter’s absurdist archetypal lingo–the crime syndicate goes by the name of “the Outfit”–but the film has no mythic resonances, and it has been photographed in a brackish, blue-tinted monochromatic style that’s meant to be expressive but just looks cheap.

For some reason, Porter’s revenge doesn’t stop at Val but continues up the ladder of the Outfit as he clamors to collect his $70,000. None of the movie’s distinguished crime honchos–William Devane, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson–can understand why he’s risking his and others’ lives in pursuit of such a paltry sum. The problem with the movie is that Helgeland doesn’t seem to understand it either: It’s just a line on which to hang a lot of shootings, head-bashings, and explosions. The only moments of conviction come from an Asian-American dominatrix called Pearl (Lucy Liu), who brings far more glee to the task of beating people up than the picture’s star or director. If the audience could have half as much fun as Pearl is having, Payback would be a kick.