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'Bottle' Misses the Boat

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 1999

  Movie Critic

Message in a Bottle
Robin Wright Penn and Kevin Costner navigate toward each other in "Message in a Bottle." (Warner Bros.)

Luis Mandoki
Kevin Costner;
Paul Newman;
Robin Wright Penn;
Ileana Douglas;
John Savage;
Robbie Coltrane;
Viveka Davis
Running Time:
2 hours, 6 minutes
Contains sexual situations, mild curses and a fist fight
"Message in a Bottle" is, for Kevin Costner, another handsome day at the office. Make that the beach. It's a destiny romance, a sort of "Sleepless in North Carolina," in which two souls maneuver closer and closer to harmonic convergence while the audience waits with delicious agony in the dark, tear ducts and tissues at the ready.

To that audience, I say: Pick up that "Bottle." To my friends, I say: Isn't there a chore in the basement you haven't gotten to lately? I was that annoying moviegoer one recent screening night at the Pentagon City theater, constantly checking his Indiglo watch – my best friend on these occasions – to see how many times this thing was going to bob before it went down.

Costner, who basically plays an archetypal version of himself, is Garret Blake, who builds sailboats in the Outer Banks, says little and writes mournful letters to a lost love called Catherine. He's so "Kevin Costner" he's almost a hologram of himself, something you could order from the Mr. Right Catalogue.

Robin Wright Penn, whose deft performance is rather more than the movie deserves, is Theresa Osborne, a single mother and researcher at the Chicago Tribune, who picks up one of his love letters in a bottle. In Nicholas Sparks's book, on which this is based, she's a Boston Globe researcher with long black hair. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to catch some Bulls games between shoots.

Burned by a nasty divorce, Theresa is not anxious to start a new relationship. But the letter's devastating honesty (Robert James Waller drivel, if you ask me) touches her. And when the author (who signs his letters as "G") speaks of being Catherine's True North, Theresa's needle gets romantically magnetized. When Theresa's hard-bitten (but, of course, lovable) editor (Robbie Coltrane) reads the letter, he runs it in the newspaper. There's a huge response, of course. A second "G" letter surfaces. Then, there's a caller from North Carolina, claiming to have written the first but not the second.

Theresa makes a beeline for the Outer Banks and encounters Garret, an introspective boat-builder who still hasn't recovered from his wife's death two years before. His only companion is his father, Dodge (Paul Newman), a wisecracking old soul who sees in Theresa the key to Garret's emotional rehabilitation. When Theresa first meets Garret, he's sanding down a boat that, he says, was "underappreciated."

"I know how she feels," says Theresa.

"Doubt it," replies Garret. Ah-hah. Looks like the G Man is recovering nicely.

Costner has whittled down his skills to a comely efficiency. After all, it takes just one shimmery gaze to make his fans think they've died and gone to Kevin. Why work himself into a lather?

But Wright Penn and Newman are nice surprises. She really looks like a woman falling head over heels in love. And he milks a rather throwaway role with charm we haven't seen since "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

"You know, if I was about 150 years younger, you'd be in trouble lady," he tells Theresa.

Newman's cuteness aside, this movie feels long-winded. How long can you keep these two lovebirds apart, before they finally get it? How many music montages of unfulfilled longing can a movie take? Screenwriter Gerald DiPego's adaptation invents a subplot in which Garret fights Catherine's family for the right to her paintings. What this does is prolong the romantic inevitability, and give Garret an opportunity to thump his ex-brother-in-law (John Savage) in public and utter the movie's best one-liner about his problem with human relationships. While Garret straightens out his problems with his former in-laws, and comes to terms with his moody mourning, and while Theresa sorely tests the Chicago Tribune's liberal leave policy, you get the increasing sensation that you are not watching a story, so much as treading water.

But if the film is nothing to send a message in a bottle about, it will serve its core audience – those moviegoers who say Aaaaaaaaw when they hear that letter-writing stuff and reach for the Kleenex at the slightest hint of tragedy.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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