Some words of advice about "Message in a Bottle": If this movie crosses your path, grab it, cork it up and throw it right back into the drink.
An adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel that wants to follow in the tear-soaked footsteps of "The Bridges of Madison County" and "The Horse Whisperer," "Message in a Bottle" will no doubt induce tears -- of boredom. And, with its morbid ending, it joins "City of Angels," "Meet Joe Black" and "What Dreams May Come" in Hollywood's Maudlin Squad, movies that star Death as the hypotenuse of their romantic triangles.
But it isn't the gloppy romance or cheap metaphysics of "Message in a Bottle" that make it objectionable -- after all, where else can film-goers indulge those guilty pleasures if not in the safety of the cinema? The problem is Kevin Costner, whose screen presence is not equaled by acting ability and who, between this and "Waterworld," must, at all costs, be prevented from ever getting near the ocean.
This is the second time in a few months that Robin Wright Penn has appeared in a poor movie. That's a shame -- she is that rare actress whose supreme beauty is equaled by her increasingly expressive gifts. As a Chicago newspaper researcher who finds the missive, then embarks on a search for the man who wrote it (guess who), she manages to make her character believable, even when she's traipsing off to North Carolina for indeterminate periods of time without a peep from her boss, or writing one feature story and being rewarded with an enormous office. (Who knew Chicago unions were that strong?)
But as pleasing as Penn is to behold, she has to go and meet up with Costner's character, a boat builder whose life losses have rendered him unable to love. For all of director Luis Mandoki's strenuous efforts to heighten the romance -- candles, evening sails and, good God, a marshmallow fight -- Costner kills any nascent chemistry with his vacant non-performance. Even when his character is doing something as simple as sanding a boat, he looks like a man pretending to sand a boat.
Costner's limitations are brought into even more painful relief by the presence of Paul Newman, who plays his father in a wonderfully sly turn. The source of every shred of humor in "Message in a Bottle" (aside from a few nice moments from Robbie Coltrane as Penn's editor), Newman portrays the old coot with a wily, knowing sexiness. He plays up the codger routine, but with a wink.
At one point, he jokes with Penn's character about wishing he were 150 years younger, but Newman knows perfectly well what the rest of us know: that any self-respecting, red-blooded woman on the planet would dump the bore on the boat and run off with him in a hot minute. Even pushing 200, he's still got it.
'Message in a Bottle'
Starring Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn, Paul Newman
Directed by Luis Mandok
Released by Warner Brothers
Rated PG-13 (a scene of sexuality)
Running time: 126 minutes
Sun score: *
Pub Date: 2/12/99