[Screen It]

(2002) (Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young man temporarily moves in with his fiancée's parents as they try to deal with her recent murder.
Joe Nast (JAKE GYLLENHAAL) is a young man who's trying to do both the right thing and what's expected of him after the shocking murder of his fiancée, Diana Floss (CAREENA MELIA). He's now temporarily moved in with her parents, Ben (DUSTIN HOFFMAN) and JoJo (SUSAN SARANDON) who are dealing with the loss in their own ways.

Ben wants Joe to join him in his commercial realty business, believing that getting on with their lives and keeping busy by making deals with the like of Mike Mulcahey (DABNEY COLEMAN) will get them through this.

JoJo, a writer, becomes increasingly annoyed at most every outsider who offers their heartfelt or forced condolences, while she, Ben and Joe meet with Mona Camp (HOLLY HUNTER), the local assistant D.A. who wants to put away Diana's captured murderer for good.

Meanwhile, Joe tries to maintain his role as the grieving husband-to-be, but runs into a conflict when he meets Bertie Knox (ELLEN POMPEO). She's the local post office manger who helps him retrieve the already mailed wedding invitations before they go out. She also tends bar at Cal's Place, a corner pub owned by her boyfriend who's now been missing in action in Vietnam for the past three years.

As she and Joe find themselves drawn to each other, they, as well as Ben and JoJo try to come to grips with the loses in their lives and letting go of their loved ones.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Motivation for penning a screenplay can come from any number of sources, imaginary or real, and good or bad. For writer/director Brad Silberling's latest film, the catalyst was really bad. Back in 1989, he was a 26-year-old film school graduate seemingly primed for the big time. He was also engaged to Rebecca Schaeffer, an actress on the TV show "My Sister Sam."

Then the unimaginable occurred when Schaeffer was shockingly murdered by a deranged fan and Silberling's life was turned upside down. Like most people, he eventually got on with his life and went on to work on TV shows and helm feature films such as "Casper" and "City of Angels."

Now, some 13 years after that life changing event, Silberling has returned to it in his latest effort, "Moonlight Mile." A well-crafted, engaging and ultimately uplifting film, it's not based on the actual, horrific incident, but rather draws its inspiration from it.

Just like the filmmaker, the picture's protagonist finds himself in unknown territory when he's thrown together with the victim's parents who individually and collectively try to sort out their feelings and figure out how to deal with the loss and whether they should or can move on.

In a way, the film obviously has parallels to other related pictures such as "Ordinary People" or "In the Bedroom," and to many it will sound like an overbearingly depressing affair. Thankfully, it's not, although it's certainly gripping.

If one walked into this film blind to its storyline or subject matter, however, the likely first conclusion would be that this was some sort of black comedy. Rather than showing the pivotal event, the film starts out with the victim's fiancé - wonderfully played by Jake Gyllenhaal ("The Good Girl," "October Sky") - and her parents - the terrific Dustin Hoffman ("Wag the Dog," "Outbreak") and Susan Sarandon ("The Banger Sisters," "Igby Goes Down") --preparing for a funeral as if it's going to be a casual Sunday drive.

What initially seems like irreverence or a flippant attitude, though, eventually turns out to be the survivors' coping mechanism. Hoffman's Ben wants to keep busy and bring the fiancé into his business world. Sarandon's JoJo rolls her eyes and grows increasingly impatient with the formality and what she perceives as forced sincerity from others. Only Gyllenhaal's Joe seems to be reacting "normally" in that he has to get away from the overwhelming attention, pity and reality of the situation.

Even in real life, everyone reacts differently to shock, but the carefree, humorous and thus seemingly unrealistic way in which the characters were acting and reacting here put me off for a while. Accordingly, I wasn't sure of the film's tone and/or if it was going to recover, let alone shine after such a start.

Yet, it does and then some. Slowly but surely, the characters' emotional survival tactics begin to falter or peel away and we're then allowed to see the real reactions and emotions that had previously been buried. The result is quite moving, no doubt helped by Silberling's terrific writing and the outstanding performances from the cast.

While the likes of Holly Hunter ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "Home For the Holidays") and Dabney Coleman ("You've Got Mail," "Nine to Five") get smaller supporting parts, it's Ellen Pompeo (making her feature film debut) who's the most impressive. Playing a seemingly free-spirited young woman who befriends Joe, she's actually similarly masking personal tragedy, heartache and the inability to let go (her boyfriend has been missing in action in Vietnam for 3 years).

Her character's interaction with Gyllenhaal's is nothing short of superb as we watch their character arcs swing wide and deepen. Both performers deliver so much through their facial expressions that one's heart aches for the hurt they're feeling and we rejoice that these kindred spirits have found each other.

Of course, such material easily could have ended up being or becoming melodramatic or maudlin. Thankfully, Silberling pulls in the reins and keeps such attributes at bay. The result is a terrific little picture that's all about dealing with loss, grief and guilt, as well as figuring out how, when and whether to finally let the deceased truly rest in peace as well as in one's heart, mind and soul.

It's certainly filled with just the right mixture of heartfelt drama and effective and rather funny comic relief, as well as top-notch performances, terrific individual moments and an overall engaging and moving story. This wonderful piece of work should bring a tear to your eye, a lump to your throat and ultimately a smile to your face in the end. Watch for this one come awards nomination time. "Moonlight Mile" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed October 2, 2002 / Posted October 4, 2002

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