in a Bottle
Message in a Bottle – undoubtedly one of the strangest films of the late '90s – often seems poised on the edge of romantic comedy. Its premise is an old-fashioned variation on You've Got Mail (1998) – or, further back, that film's source, The Shop Around the Corner (1940).
Theresa (Robin Wright Penn), instead of fishing in the vast, unknowable waves of cyberspace, goes strolling along a beach and finds on the shore a secret, highly intimate message from Garret (Kevin Costner).
It is a melancholic message to a lost love – and Theresa is instantly hooked, using all her skills as a journalistic researcher to establish the writer's identity and track down his seaport address. Theresa's gossipy friends at the newspaper office issue the usual warnings: "What if he's a psycho?" But they, too, are drunk on the romanticism of it all.
When Theresa finally encounters the handsome, softly spoken Garret in the flesh, she faces that ethical problem familiar from many romantic comedies. Does she admit she is on the trail of a good story, or does she hide the fact and let herself fall in love? It takes the film almost an hour to return to this intrigue – and when it does, there is a fine, melodramatic twist in store.
Although this movie flirts with comic complications, its only moments of humour belong to Garret's wiry father, Dodge (Paul Newman). The rest of the story is as serious as a heart attack, and occasionally almost as painful.
The film that Message in a Bottle most fulsomely recalls is Barbra Streisand's The Prince of Tides (1991). As in that earnest drama, a central love story raises all manner of burning, emotional issues: reconciliation of family ties; the need to mourn but also transcend the memory of past loves; the problem of squaring work with intimacy.
Both films express vast, romantic yearnings that cannot possibly be fulfilled, and an odd, peculiarly New Age desire to erase all guilt, regret and violence from the world.
True to their titles, both Message in a Bottle and The Prince of Tides are oceanic in form. They lurch wildly from one large piece of the plot to the next. And just when one suspects that the story is about to settle down, a long-forgotten issue surges forward, dragging everything else along with it.
Message in a Bottle has the air of a novelistic adaptation that never found satisfactory shape as a screenplay. Writer Gerald DiPego and director Luis Mandoki essay too many ways of framing or defining the central love relationship.
Garret and Theresa symbolise past and present, country and city, male and female, silence and speech, grief and survival. There is much vague burbling about the importance of "living among your things" and embracing the everyday. To make the drama even lumpier, a stern clan of Garret's in-laws is periodically given its own weighty sub-plot.
Yet, for all its clunky, dead stretches, there is something undeniably captivating about this movie. Perhaps its appeal can be explained by its rarity: what the industry nowadays likes to label a chick flick is basically a film that wallows masochistically in sentimentality and melancholia.
Along the way, images of men and women as pained, introspective softies are indulged and explored – images which mainstream movies so rarely feature.
If I believed in the concept of guilty pleasures, Message in a Bottle would surely be among them.
© Adrian Martin April 1999