2002, Touchstone. Directed by Brad Silberling. Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, Ellen Pompeo.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Some profanity, crass language, and sexual references; a depiction of nonmarital sensuality (no nudity); fleeting expressions of agnosticism or disbelief.
By Steven D. Greydanus
This might seem an odd way to put it, but writer-director Brad Silberling’s Moonlight Mile could be thought of as a kind of backwards mirror-image of writer-star Nia Vardalos’s indie hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
The latter film ends with a daughter’s wedding. Moonlight Mile begins with a daughter’s funeral. Funerals, like weddings, are occasions that bring families together; but where the Portokaloses in Greek Wedding have a huge extended Greek family, Ben and JoJo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon) more resemble the rootless yuppie parents of the groom in Wedding, and don’t seem to have much extended family that matters.
In contrast to the Portokaloses, who take their religious heritage for granted and never question that their daughter will have an Orthodox wedding, the Flosses are self-consciously non-religious Jews who explicitly instruct the rabbi not to mention the name of God: "We just don’t think our daughter would want to hear the God thing," says Benjamin Floss (Hoffman), apparently not noticing the eschatological non sequitur.
Where Wedding is chiefly about its bride-to-be, Moonlight Mile centers on the late Diana Floss’s fiancé, Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko). Unlike the non-Greek fiancé in Wedding, who has a hard time gaining the acceptance of his bride’s close-knit family, Joe finds more acceptance — and emotional involvement — with his non-in-laws than he’s bargained for, and all the more because Diana is no longer between him and them.
Despite such polar opposites — or because of them, perhaps — a similar tone runs through both films: a wryly knowing comedy of life’s absurdities. A story about dealing with death may not seem like ideal material for humor, but one of the things common to weddings and funerals is that both are stressful, and stressful situations can be unexpectedly comic. People have such different ways of coping; they can be prone to saying stupid things, or reacting to other people’s stupidity with more candor than usual.
Just try not to laugh at the titles of the self-help books given to the Flosses by well-meaning guests, or the way JoJo (Sarandon) reacts to them. Other moments of well-observed humor occur in scenes that have the Flosses discussing JoJo’s conflicting feelings about friends reaching out or not reaching out to them, and Diana’s former classmates stopping by to adopt articles of clothing from her wardrobe. One of the movie’s funniest bits involves Joe at an excruciating dinner where one insensitive clod finally says one wrong thing too many.
Despite the humor, all this might be a bit bleak were it not for the sudden appearance of Bertie (relative newcomer Ellen Pompeo, who’s been not unreasonably compared to Renée Zellweger), a winsome young woman whom Joe meets cute at the local post office when he goes to recover the wedding invitations before they’re sent out.
Bertie seems very available, flirting with Joe from their first meeting, and filmmaker Silberling moves their relationship along with what might look like unseemly haste, though an as-yet-unrevealed plot twist puts a new light on things.
It’s not long after they’ve met that Bertie appears unexpectedly at a bar (where it turns out she also works) and unexpectedly falls into Joe’s arms for a slow dance, only later explaining that she was moved to do so by his selection at the jukebox: "You played my song." Soon Silberling comes up with a reason for Bertie to invite Joe to put his finger on the inside of her lip. With a girl like that, unless the guy is very principled, things can move along quickly. Joe Nast is not that guy.
As this suggests, characters and situations in Moonlight Mile show signs of contrivance. Yet as with Greek Wedding, the contrivances are affectionate, not contemptuous. Characters in both films are painted with oversimplified strokes, but the simplifications highlight recognizable human traits and behavior.
Moonlight Mile explores, or perhaps contemplates is a better word, grief and healing, passivity and aggression, well-meaning secrecy and blunt frankness. There’s even a brief glimpse into the soul-searching anguish of a bereaved unbeliever dreading the thought of what, in spite of all one believes or disbelieve, might or might not after all be on the other side of the grave.
Like Wedding filmmaker Vardalos, Silberling’s story comes from experience: He was engaged to actress Rebecca Schaeffer of TV’s "My Sister Sam," who was shot to death in 1989 by a stalker in a manner similar to Joe’s fiancée.
This doesn’t mean that Silberling is interested in a scrupulously realistic representation of what grieving is really like. It does mean that he’s interested in an honest depiction of real emotions and relationships and personalities. Even when you realize that, yes, there’s actually going to be a Capraesque courtroom scene, it turns out to be all right, because of what Silberling does — and, more importantly, doesn’t do — with it.
For Silberling, making Moonlight Mile was doubtless a cathartic experience. Watching it is also one.