(PG-13) 3 stars The two best examinations of grief I"ve ever seen are Atom Egoyan"s elegant 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter and David Lynch"s stunning 1990 pilot/two-hour opening episode of Twin Peaks. The Twin Peaks premiere offered a devastating portrait of grief in its rawest state, depicting the immediate reactions of family, friends, acquaintances and others to the murder of a young woman in a small Northwestern American town. The Sweet Hereafter picks up a bit further along the timeline of loss, visiting a number of families in rural Northeastern Canada whose children died in a school bus accident. Following a soft-spoken, but tenacious lawyer as he moves from house to house, Egoyan offers a quiet, compassionate study of grieving in an emotionally constricted community.
Set in New England during the early "70s, Moonlight Mile also deals with the aftermath of a loved one"s death. Although the film is slow, clunky and stilted, with a love story wedged in where none belongs, it still manages to pack a punch. The production, enlivened with welcome doses of humor, also provides a showcase for some fine acting, particularly from the incredible Susan Sarandon. The story opens at the funeral of Diana Floss, an innocent bystander killed at a local diner when a deranged husband shot at his wife. Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), Diana"s fiancÈ, is staying with her parents. Prior to the tragedy, the young newcomer to town was considering taking a job with her father, Ben (Dustin Hoffman), selling real estate. When the last guests leave, we get our first look at the house dynamics. Diana"s mother, Jojo (Susan Sarandon), is the loose cannon in the family. A writer, she is quick-witted with a tart tongue. After spending days listening to well-intentioned attempts to make her feel better, she is ready to voice her contempt for all the useless chatter (In reference to one particularly sincere couple, she says, "Didn"t you just wanna smack "em?"). Ben is a more traditional soul, always concerned with how he and the family are perceived by others. He drives Jojo crazy by scooting off to answer the phone the second it rings, whether the moment is appropriate or not. After the third time he did this, I jotted in my notebook, "We"ll know he"s grown as a person when he finally just lets the damned thing ring." When it comes to Joe, it"s hard to know what"s going on inside. The young man is exceedingly polite and seems eager to help others, while simultaneously appearing ready to bolt out of the room at any given second. With Diana gone, Jojo and Ben are desperate for Joe to remain in the house with them. But he slips out at night, taking long walks in the darkness. While helping Ben by retrieving wedding invitations from the post office, Joe meets Bertie (Ellen Pompeo), a charmer who works with the mail by day, while waiting tables at a neighborhood tavern called Cal"s Place by night. Her time at the bar turns out to be more a vigil - Bertie"s boyfriend, Cal, has been missing in Vietnam for three years, but she refuses to even consider the possibility that he may be dead. This being a movie and all, it is inevitable that a romance will spring up between Joe and Bertie, triggering lots of uncomfortable moments. Truth be told, there was no need for a love story, and it feels awkwardly crammed into the film. Silberling"s efforts to insert the romance at a regular basis get so strained, particularly towards the end, that it seems a wonder that the writer/director didn"t pull a muscle twisting to shove it in. Despite the problems, Silberling relays a lot about grief - about the pain, the guilt and the difficulty in trying to resume normal activities. He also provides a stage for some exceptional acting. Dabney Coleman contributes a nice supporting turn and Pompeo is fine as the love interest, but the attraction here lies with the three headliners. Susan Sarandon is a knockout as Jojo, delivering a whipsnap smart performance that ranks among the best in her career. Dustin Hoffman, bless his heart, is smart (and gentlemanly) enough to underplay his role so that it compliments, rather than competes, with Sarandon. And Jake Gyllenhaal is equally impressive in the lead role. Gyllenhaal reminds me of Tobey Maguire - both are good looking guys with quirky smiles and the ability to stare cryptically into space in the middle of a scene as if to defy the other characters and the audience. Thankfully, he and Maguire both choose to use their acting talent rather than to cruise by on weirdo cuteness. Releasing Moonlight Mile in early October is probably a wise idea. The cumbersome storytelling would likely cause the film to compare poorly with the heavyweight fare due later this year, but right now, after a couple of months of crap-ola from the major studios, the movie may find its audience.