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Friday, October 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'Moonlight Mile' has a fine cast, but it's just too much like, um, a movie

Seattle Times movie critic

"Moonlight Mile"


**
With Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Ellen Pompeo, Holly Hunter. Written and directed by Brad Silberling. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and brief strong language. Several theaters.

It's impossible not to think of "The Graduate" when watching Dustin Hoffman in "Moonlight Mile" — it's like seeing Benjamin Braddock, 30 years later, still married to his Elaine (named Jojo here, and played by Susan Sarandon) and coping with one of life's cruelest milestones, the death of a child.

Hoffman's character, which was written with the actor in mind, is even named Benjamin. And there's another Benjamin Braddock figure here: young Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), the lost-looking fiancé of Ben and Jojo's murdered daughter, who wanders through the movie wondering what to do next.

Unfortunately, despite fine work from Gyllenhaal, Joe is an underwritten character who never quite steps into the light shone by this film's fine supporting cast.

A heavy-browed young man with ashy circles under his eyes, the grieving Joe has secrets that he's not sure how to reveal.

This is a tough burden for a young actor, giving him little to do but look sad and uncertain. And his quick infatuation with another young woman (Ellen Pompeo), a free spirit who's clearly been sent to help his imprisoned soul fly, feels artificial — it's too quirky, too scripted, too ... well, like a movie.

"Moonlight Mile" (formerly titled "Baby's in Black"; the new title refers to a Rolling Stones song, but I'm not sure it's an improvement) has been a long-in-development labor of love for writer/director Brad Silberling, who was involved with television actress Rebecca Schaeffer when she was murdered in 1989.

Although the film is set in the '70s and tells a very different story, this is clearly emotional territory that Silberling knows well, and some of the details are achingly poignant — the well-meaning friends bearing sympathy and gifts (a book called "These Things Happen" sits on a table), the aimless watching of television, the lonely sound of a train whistle at night.

The movie's an exploration of loss, about finding faith in life again after tragedy. It's brave territory, but the true-to-life feel of many of its details contrasts too sharply with the careful scriptedness of the story. Too much feels phony here — even the rain, in one scene, is clearly the product of a machine. Joe's journey, neatly fitting into the movie's confines, doesn't touch the heart because it can't, the way a prepackaged meal can't approach the zing of a fresh one.

Silberling, though, does well by his actors (although it's shameful that the likes of Holly Hunter and Allan Corduner are given so little to do).

In particular Hoffman and Sarandon, who had never worked together before, turn out to be inspired casting. As a long-married couple, they're perfectly believable — their voices are similarly companionable rasps, their wordless communication spot-on. When Sarandon tells Gyllenhaal that within marriage "you find your home," the warmth of her voice makes it a lovely moment. Perhaps Ben and Jojo were the real story here, not Joe at all.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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