Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:12 - Released 2/12/99

The premise of Message In A Bottle, Kevin Costner's latest drippy chick flick, is no doubt an emotionally powerful one. A quiet shipbuilder/sailor from North Carolina loses his beloved wife, and he can't find a way to get past it. So he writes her a very personal letter, puts it in a bottle, and throws it into the ocean where it will undoubtedly, inevitably return to shore many miles away and fall into the hands of a complete stranger. Hmmmm — interesting. Is this some kind of new technique in group therapy? "Hey, look at me, I'm good-looking, sensitive, and tragic. Any babes on the east coast want to cheer me up?"

This is typical Costner, but I can't blame him--he didn't write this one. The script was written by Gerald Di Pego, adapted from the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Surely, though, Costner's history with this kind of movie is what convinced director Luis Mandoki that he'd be perfect for the role of tragic hero Garret Blake. Oh, yeah — and the fact that his company, Tig Productions, financed the film. But, sappy or not, Message In A Bottle is a nice experience (not to mention beautifully filmed), mainly thanks to Robin Wright (The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump), who plays opposite Costner. Wright (credited as Robin Wright Penn, since her marriage to Sean) puts forth a compelling performance full of spontanaeity and relaxed energy that really makes the couple's growing relationship a pleasure to watch. Costner is his usual monosyllabic, monotone self, but it is Wright who deserves credit for keeping the tear-jerker nausea factor to a minimum.

When Chicago newspaper researcher Theresa Osborne (Wright) is vacationing in New England, she discovers a bottle on the beach with a note inside. When she reads the badly typewritten page, it is the most tragic, beautiful love letter she has ever seen. A man whose wife has died declares that he is lost without her — that she was his "true north." Sailor talk, you know. She shows it to her co-worker (Illeana Douglas), they share an "oh, how romantic" session, and think that's the end of it. But when her boss (Robbie Coltrane) puts it in his editorial column, the paper gets tons of letters. One is from someone who found a similar missive, written on the same stationery. Intrigued, Theresa decides to try to track down the sender of the sea-borne valentines, and ends up on the doorstep of Garret Blake (Costner).

Living with Garret is his crotchety father Dodge (Paul Newman), a recovering alcoholic who's been through his own personal wringer. All adult romances have this character — at least one of the leads always needs a parent to say, "What's the matter with you? Don't let her slip away! Why, if I was 30 years younger, . . ." etc. After a brief period of uncomfortable silences, Garret and Theresa get busy tangling tongues and marshmallow fighting. But she learns that Garret has not properly dealt with Catherine's death, and there are other problems involving the entire community. So she must decide whether to get mixed up in his complicated life or just go back to Chicago after a few rolls in the sand.

What could have been another Costner feel-fest has been helped immeasurably by Robin Wright. Thanks to her easy style, this film is not just wet, but substantial and satisfying — like many other bottled goods. ****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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