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'Moonlight Mile'

A walk with a family caught in grief

Friday, October 18, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

What do you say about a 21-year-old woman who died? Who was murdered? Who was your girlfriend? Or your daughter? Or related to someone you know?

 
 
'MOOONLIGHT MILE'

RATING: PG-13 for some sensuality and brief strong language.

STARRING: Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ellen Pompeo.

DIRECTOR: Brad Silberling.

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For most people, death means having to say you're sorry. And even though you are sorry, you hate saying so because it's expected of you and because you really don't know what else to say. Perhaps you are sensitive enough to realize that anything you say will sound trite in the face of soul-searing grief.

Maybe love means knowing what to say and when to say it, which brings us to "Moonlight Mile," a remarkable film by a man who has waited 13 years to fully express himself on the subject.

Writer-director Brad Silberling was dating Rebecca Schaeffer, the pretty young co-star of the television sitcom "My Sister Sam," when she was shot to death by a stalker in 1989.

A long-time TV director, Silberling has made three features, each dealing with death in some way: "Casper," about the friendly ghost of the comic books; "City of Angels," about a celestial spirit who falls in love with a human woman; and now "Moonlight Mile," about a family coming to grips with the emotions of a violent, unexpected, wrenching loss.

Silberling does not try to tell Schaeffer's story but there's little doubt that the emotions are genuine. He never shows us the shooting -- the movie begins as the Floss family prepares to leave for the funeral. The compulsive Ben (Dustin Hoffman) cannot bring himself to ignore a ringing telephone, much to the annoyance of his wife, Jo-Jo (Susan Sarandon).

But the third person in the household, Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), occupies an uncomfortable place in the family. He was the dead Diana's fiance, he was living with her in her parents' house with the expectation that he would go into business with Ben after the wedding.

Now, they are all in a kind of limbo, and because of the impending trial of the alleged shooter (Diana was an innocent bystander in a domestic war that erupted in a public place), they will remain there for a while. The three of them try to carry on, but the relationship between Ben and Joe seems forced and unnatural. Everyone is trying to hold together by clinging to each other, but that can't last -- especially after Joe finds someone else to talk to in Bertie (Ellen Pompeo), the local mail carrier who doubles as a waitress in a bar, where she nurses her own private sorrow.

The movie's depiction of the family's grief and bewilderment, its anger and helplessness, its struggle to pick up the pieces and go on, to deal with the reactions of friends and relatives (not all of whom are well-meaning) hits the head and the heart in perfect unison of logic and feeling.

That's why you may shudder in dismay as "Moonlight Mile" seems to head down the wrong path on any number of occasions -- Joe and Bertie meeting cute, Ben and Joe in a comic pas de deux of awkwardness, the inevitable Big Revelation, the final courtroom scene. The realization that the movie is set in the past (the early 1970s) comes as a surprise in an offhand reference perhaps a quarter of the way into the film.

Yet Silberling refuses to let the film slide all the way into conventionality. Just when you're sure you know where it's going, "Moonlight Mile" (the title comes from an old Rolling Stones song that plays on Bertie's personal jukebox) rebounds in a different direction -- just like Joe's testimony at the trial, which brings everything back to the key point. Gyllenhaal makes it all sound perfectly natural and spontaneous, which is the only way it could work.

Gyllenhaal is reactive to a considerable degree in the role, but also responsive -- he and Tobey Maguire have a lot in common. Hoffman has to handle the tics of a compulsive man whose attempts to be upbeat only expose his bewildered insecurity but he rises to the occasion, especially in the scene where he visits the restaurant where his daughter died. Sarandon is a joy, managing her grief through sarcastic humor and sharing confidences with the young man who has the same first name as her.

The subtext of "Moonlight Mile" comes in the references, subtle and otherwise, to Hoffman's breakout film, "The Graduate," in which he played a go-getter named Ben who wasn't sure of his future and was seduced by his fiancee's mother. Now he's playing an older Ben who is equally unsure of his future and finds himself adopting yet another uncertain young man as his business partner and surrogate son. But Ben's real-estate scheme would be every bit as wrong as if the hero of "The Graduate" had taken that whispered advice and gone into plastics.

That's akin to what the district attorney (Holly Hunter playing a surrogate for Marcia Clark, who handled the Schaeffer murder case) advises Joe to do in his trial testimony. Instead, Joe gets it right. And so does "Moonlight Mile."


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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