You have reached the Psychic Critic Hotline, where your friend and humble narrator offers not just his own perspective on a new film, but predictions regarding how other critics’ perspectives will line up. Moonlight Mile opens in New York and Los Angeles just after deadline for this story, and I am receiving the following precognitive signals: 1. Hip critics at hip media outlets will hate it so much you’ll pick up contact hate just from passing them on the street; and 2. Plenty of mainstream critics will proclaim it transcendent and Oscar-worthy.
In both cases, they will be wrong.
Moonlight Mile may become less a film story than a cinematic Rohrshach test for taking a slick, accessible Hollywood approach to potentially challenging subject matter. It’s a descendent of films like Terms of Endearment that tackle weighty issues of love, death and family and wrap them in a comfortable blanket of quirky characters. The film itself will drive the art snobs absolutely crazy; the praise of those who find it heartwarming will drive them even crazier. And neither side is likely to accept the reality that it’s nothing more nor less than just plain nice.
Your first clue is that it’s set in the early 1970s in one of those picturesque little New England towns that exist only in nice movies, scored to plenty of classic rock chestnuts. The death of Diana Floss—caught in the tragic wrong place during a shooting spree in a restaurant—has drawn together Diana’s parents Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and JoJo (Susan Sarandon) and Diana’s fiancé Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal). Unsure about his direction in life, Joe has allowed himself to be pulled into a real estate business partnership with Ben and an open-ended stay in the Floss home. But Joe also gravitates towards Bertie (Ellen Pompeo)—the local postal carrier/barmaid trapped in her own romantic time warp—and finds it increasingly hard to balance being himself with being the person Diana’s parents need him to be.
Writer-director Brad Silberling (City of Angels) based Moonlight Mile on personal experience—having been involved with actress Rebecca Schaeffer when she was murdered in 1989—which certainly casts an aura of sincerity over the proceedings. That sincerity could have turned the film into a big, earnest bore, but Silberling is more interested in giving his cast room to play. Hoffman and Sarandon bicker sit-comically but engagingly, playing the mourning parents with gusto. Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, The Good Girl) seems to be coasting on his sensitive-guy-lost-in-a-harsh-world thing, but he benefits from being teamed with the sexy Pompeo, who combines Jenna Elfman sass with Renee Zellweger earthiness. Plenty of scenes are played strictly for laughs, and work exactly that way. For a film about recovering from senseless tragedy, Moonlight Mile presents a face cast more often in a rueful smile than with tear-streaked cheeks.
And that’s the tone likely to have the anti-Hollywoodies dog-earing their thesauruses under the entry for “sucks.” Moonlight Mile has the audacity, in the wake of serious grief studies like The Son’s Room and In the Bedroom, to take a story about survivor guilt and attempt to make it entertaining. There’s nothing piercingly insightful about Silberling’s approach, nothing jarring in its naked honesty. He simply shows his characters kinda fumbling around trying to make sense of it all, sticks a few jokes into the mix and gives us a happy ending. The bastard.
If there’s any reason to wince at Moonlight Mile, it’s the decision to make a criminal trial for Diana’s assailant part of the narrative. There’s no compelling reason for the subplot, besides nodding ineffectually at frustrations with the legal system handled much more effectively in In the Bedroom, and providing Gyllenhaal with an overwrought witness-stand speech. It’s fine that Silberling doesn’t have anything earthshaking to say about mourning, but it’s best that he not draw attention to it.
If Silberling gets clumsy with his focus, he still demonstrates a workmanlike competence in his execution. Warm fuzziness oozes from every frame of his film, as though it just wants to hold you in its glossy embrace and assure you that everything will be all right. Silberling wants to feel better about moving on with his life after tragedy, and wants you, the viewer, to feel better too. Moonlight Mile isn’t a place to find revealed truth, or pure filmmaking evil. It’s just Hollywood. And sometimes, just Hollywood is just enough.