Message In A Bottle (Luis Mandoki, 1999)
Category: Sad film based on a song by The Police. Other not-as-sad films in this category include the Steve Martin film Roxanne and the Jodie Foster sci-fi flick Contact. Also I’ve read that the song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” was adapted into a book, called Lolita. Bit racy, that song/book.
This is the third in the irregular Taste My Sad series on sad movies based on books by Nicholas Sparks. We’re 1-for-2 so far: a thumbs-up to The Notebook; a dear-God-that-was-atrocious to The Last Song. The fact that this is the second book that Sparks wrote (after The Notebook) bodes well. The Last Song was late-period Sparks, after he got all bloated and complacent. This was early Sparks, back when he was writing with something to prove. Back then, he wasn’t just following the same old tired formula, book after book after book. He was CREATING that same old tired formula.
Specifically, this is a sad movie about futile letter-writing campaigns. (This also kind of happened in The Notebook, when the mom didn’t let her read his letters! SPARKS THEME. Add that to the list, alongside summer romances and people dying.) I see a lot of these in the circles I inhabit: Washington, DC (writing letters to your Congressman is totally worthwhile, BTW; they never get thrown out unread) and the nerdy TV fanboy crowd (Dear FOX, SAVE LONE STAR). There’s something very earnest and romantic about writing letters to someone who will never read them. And who knows, there’s always a chance someone at the White House WILL read it, and then he’ll show it to Obama, and then he’ll be so moved by it that he’ll read it aloud during the State of the Union, and then your name will get mentioned on TV and you’ll be the most popular kid in the fourth grade! Or the other kids will make fun of you for writing a letter to the President about how sad you are that your dad is unemployed. Could go either way. (Other films in this surprisingly common genre of films include P.S. I Love You and Letters to Juliet.)
My familiarity with this issue: I’m like knee-deep in Sparks now. It’s unseemly. This was the first Sparks book to be turned into a film. Moviegoers ate it up right away though, as it made $118 million at the box office. Curiously, though, the film cost $80 million to make. $80 million?? Seems a bit high, no? For a movie like this? It could be that Kevin Costner, so traumatized by all the time he spent filming Waterworld, was physically incapable of going back out on the water, and so for the scenes that required him to be out on a boat dropping bottles with notes in them off the side (of which I’d imagine there are many), the filmmakers had to build an enormous artificial tank, like in Titanic. (Note: this is all conjecture.)
In a way, I feel like these blog posts are similar to the letters that Costner presumably puts in a bottle and casts out to sea. Many of my friends (OTB) tell me that they read this, and I have no reason to think they’re lying. Sometimes they even cite specific lines that they liked (or disliked), or points I made that they agreed with (or disagreed with). But they could just be really good at guessing, or maybe they overheard two people in the park talking about the blog. One can never be sure about these things. So maybe I’m just talking to myself right now. I need to remember to buy conditioner later.
OK ACTUAL THING: I’m going to print out this post when I’m done and put it in a bottle and drop it in the Potomac River and see what happens. Maybe it will wash up on the shore and some sad kindred spirit will find it and he/she will become a new FOTB! Or maybe I will be arrested for littering and poor grammar. I’ll keep you guys updated.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “A woman finds a romantic letter in a bottle washed ashore and tracks down the author, a widowed shipbuilder whose wife died tragically early. As a deep and mutual attraction blossoms, the man struggles to make peace with his past so that he can move on and find happiness.”
What I thought of the movie: I’m going to need some time to process just how bad this was. Let’s talk it out first, shall we?
So the movie is about Robin Wright Penn (no stranger to the sad, having played sad AIDS-y Jenny in Forrest Gump, and having been married to grumpy old Sean Penn for a while there), who plays an unhappily divorced researcher for the Chicago Tribune with a really annoying son that she sees every now and again (thank God he’s not in the movie that much). One day she finds the titular MIAB on the beach, an apologetic letter to some woman named Catherine, and becomes OBSESSED with it, the way you would with a great new undiscovered band. She reads it to people at work (all of them middle-aged women, a veritable Greek chorus of the Sparks demographic), and they all become obsessed too, and somehow they convince the columnist (played by Robbie Coltrane, aka Hagrid, although without the big hair and beard and enormity in this role) to print this letter in the NEWSPAPER. Is that legal?
But apparently it’s very popular, and two other people send in similar letters that they’ve found, and everyone’s all excited and Hagrid says, “The paper wants us to milk this.” This is the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. This isn’t some local-yokel paper! Is this what people did in the 90s? Did we really have that little to care about before 9/11? (And let’s not forget about the content of the letters, a load of over-sentimental treacle, as you’d expect. Whatever.) So they do some crack research on the messages and the bottles to find out where they’ve come from (I guess the gritty in-depth feature on teenage drug use in inner-city Chicago had to wait that week) and eventually find the store in North Carolina that produced the stationery for the guy who wrote the letters. And the store GIVES THEM HIS NAME! That DEFINITELY can’t be legal. I’ve bought some weird stationery in my day, and I sincerely hope that the records of those purchases are confidential.
So of course, sad lonely RWP is like, “Yeah let me go out there and check it out, you know, do some research. To get the, uh, the story there. Figure out the sitch. What? No I can’t do it over the phone, I have to, you know, be there in person. For the research... purposes.” Get OUT. Hagrid says, “Well what if he’s a convict with a bunch of tattoos?” I’ll tell you what: that would have been an interesting movie. But of course he’s sad wounded vulnerable widower Kevin Costner. She travels to the Outer Banks and finds his house, a big old rickety house on the water. (SPARKS THEME: So far all three of the Sparkses I’ve seen feature big old rickety houses on the water, inhabited by lonely men with secrets. How many of these places actually exist? And are they only inhabited by lonely men with secrets? And if so, why aren’t the eHarmony people on this?)
They meet. She doesn’t explain how she came to just randomly find him there working on some boat. It’s weird and awkward (RWP and Costner have zero chemistry at all in this movie, BTW). Somehow he asks her to to meet him at the diner at 7 AM so they can go out on the boat together. (Two things I would never do: go on a boat with someone, and meet someone at 7 AM.) At the diner, she sees him get into a fight with another dude (to be explained later). So she says to herself, “Well it’s too bad about the dreamy MsIAB, because I really thought he was gonna be cool, but apparently he’s a crazy violent man who beats people up in public at 7 in the morning, so I best be on my way.” What’s that? She doesn’t do that? She GETS ON THE BOAT WITH HIM, ALONE, even though in the less than 24 hours that she has known this person she has seen him beat a man up in a diner? “But he wrote such beautiful letters!” Shut up. I bet John Hinckley wrote beautiful letters.
But so they go on the boat and we settle into a pattern: first Costner and RWP are all playful (Costner shows the same command of the treacle in his smooth pickup lines as he had in his bottle letters), but then something reminds Costner of his dead wife (Catherine from the letters OMG) and he gets all forlorn. This happens like three separate times, most memorably when they’re out night-boating in front of a lovely green screen. She’s clearly all up on it, though, and eventually she wears him down. God what a woman he is. She learns more about him. He lives with his dad (Paul Newman, who I really hope made BANK for being in this tripe) and fixes boats for a living. He was building one of his own but stopped, two years ago, the day his wife died. (SPARKS THEME: it’s like Miley quitting the piano in TLS. These Sparks characters don’t take well to traumatic events.) (Oh also the guy he fought earlier, in case you care, was his dead wife’s brother, who wants Costner to give up some of her old paintings, but he just can’t let go. SYMBOLISM.)
So he’s got baggage. We get it, RWP gets it. The movie beats us over the head with this for at least 45 minutes. But eventually they think, hey this could be nice, for no other reason than that the movie requires them to fall in love. So eventually she has to go back to Chicago, but they agree to keep in touch and do the long-distance thing. And for this entire period of the movie, I thought to myself, there is no dramatic tension at all here, nothing moving this story forward at all. And then when she’s back in Chicago I remembered what it was: the fact that she never tells him that she found his MsIAB, and that that’s why she found him in the first place. Completely arbitrary and pointless. She could have told him that at any point during her time in North Carolina, but she doesn’t, because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise.
So he eventually visits her in Chicago; they have a sex scene that can only be described as Wiseau-esque. And he finds the bottle and the messages and he freaks out and goes home, but then forgives her and shows her that he’s been working on the boat again and he also gave up the paintings and LOOK AT ALL THAT PERSONAL GROWTH. So she goes back to see him, getting to the waterfront just in time to see him christening the boat and dedicating it to his dead wife all emotional-like, and she realizes that it’s not meant to be between them because he loves his dead wife too much. UGHHHHHH. MAKE UP YOUR MIND. They have this talk on the beach, during which I literally almost fell asleep. She goes to leave and he says, “I don’t want to lose you,” and she says, “Then don’t,” and leaves. Which really doesn’t make any actual sense. All of this could have been taken out of the movie. Or at least condensed to about five minutes.
(SPOILER ALERT, although if any of you have not seen this movie and still want to, I'd rather you not talk to me ever.) And then the ending. I cannot describe how awful the ending of the movie is. Costner goes out on his boat in terrible weather, spots a family on another boat in trouble, saves two of the three people and dies. The point of his boat trip was to leave one last MIAB to his dead wife, telling her about the new girl in his life (seems a bit rude, no?) and saying that after this one last ride he’s gonna go to Chicago to be with her. OH HOW TRAGICALLY POINTLESS. Like Romeo and Juliet, except terrible.
How I, John Krizel, related to this movie: Thanks for letting me talk that out. It really helped.
The things that struck me most about this movie were (a) how boring it was and (b) how immature and dumb the characters were. Costner spends the first part of the movie stewing whenever he sees anything dead wife-related, and throws a hissy fit when he finds the evidence of RWP’s deception, which was itself really childish, of course. The movie gives us no reason why we should believe that these two people are MFEO, or even M to have an interesting conversation with EO. I really hate it when a movie treats its characters like children, but it also helps for them to not consistently act like children.
And the length! (That’s what she said.) I just couldn’t get over how unjustifiably long this movie was. It’s 2 hours and 11 minutes long. It’s longer than Raging Bull, for crying out loud! And its dialogue consists entirely of Facebook favorite quotes from lonely sixteen-year-old girls. The Wikipedia plot synopsis for this movie is four short paragraphs, and some of THAT is filler. It could have been forty minutes long. Granted, some of this extraneous time is to give Paul Newman a few good scenes, and that was appreciated, because aww Paul Newman. But GOOD LORD. Who sat through this movie and enjoyed it?
Oh, and this is how I reacted to the last scene on the boat:
Oh, and this is how I reacted to the last scene on the boat:
How I felt after the movie ended: If I had gone all classic Taste My Sad on this (and before you get mad at me for saying “classic Taste My Sad” let me explain that I mean, if I had completely immersed myself in Sparks and watched all of these movies/read all his books in a few weeks without watching or reading anything else), I really think I would view the world differently. I already am, in a way. I’ve noticed certain things have adopted a sepia tone. I’m worrying that every time I talk to someone will be the last time I do so before they die in a superficially meaningful but ultimately pointless way. I occasionally hear the lazy beating of waves against the shore under some wistful voice-over narration. And Maroon 5. Always Maroon 5.
Nobutsrsly, it’s really a kind of alternative universe, not unlike the way that social conservatives want America to be this imaginary 1950s-esque place with everyone living in two-parent households with white picket fences and all that. The trouble with this kind of thing is that, for all practical intents and purposes, they are fantasies, and using them as any kind of guide for how we should act or how the world should work is really wrongheaded, even dangerous. Obviously I don't mean to say that Nicholas Sparks is dangerous. But the fact that the Sparks oeuvre is divorced from reality is what makes it so appealing to a lot of people. It's also what makes it so easy for smart-asses like me to mock. This one, however, was the first of the three that committed the tragic sin of not being any fun.
Oh and to the future FOTB who finds this in a bottle somewhere in the DC area, let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you are not boring.