Random Hearts and Message in a Bottle (review)

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Porn to Be Mild

There’s a subgenre of romance movies that I like to call relationship porn. They’re aimed at affection-starved, middle-aged, married women who don’t go to the movies very often — once or twice a year — and then probably with a group of girlfriends, after which they all go out for coffee and dessert (“though I really shouldn’t…”) and sit around analyzing the movie to shreds, all of them coming basically to the same sighing conclusion of “Why can’t my husband be like that?” “Like that” meaning: the brooding, sensitive, ruggedly handsome, manly-man character played by the movie’s leading man.

Key to the desirability of the leading man is this: he has suffered some deep emotional hurt, preferably the loss of a dearly beloved wife. His leading lady, a stand-in for the viewer, is able to see past his inarticulate, misdirected public displays of feeling — or is privy to his extremely articulate private declarations of such — and, more attuned to his male needs than most, becomes the one woman who can help him over his grief so that he can Love Again.

If you’ve seen one of these chick flicks, you’ve seen ’em all. But, with clockwork regularity, specifically geared to the rhythm with which their intended audience hies herself to the multiplex, they keep coming. Half a year ago, we got Message in a Bottle. Right now, we’ve got Random Hearts.
Cheatin’ hearts
Is there a manlier man than Harrison Ford in Hollywood today? I doubt it. Onscreen, he plays cops and adventurers; offscreen he practices carpentry on his ranch in Big Sky country. He’s the Marlboro Man without lung cancer. He’s the perfect object of where-have-all-the-cowboys-gone? lust. Which makes him the perfect leading man for a piece of relationship porn like Random Hearts.

Dutch Van Den Broeck (Ford: Six Days Seven Nights, Star Wars) is a Washington D.C. Internal Affairs cop. Manly nickname: check. Manly job: check. Lots of plaid flannel shirts: check. Cabin deep in the woods, with no phone and no television: you better believe it.

A plane bound for Miami plops instead into the Potomac, killing all aboard, including Dutch’s wife, Peyton (Susanna Thompson), and the man Dutch discovers she was having an affair with, Cullen Chandler (Peter Coyote: Sphere, Patch Adams). Peyton and Cullen — have you ever heard two more ridiculous names? Can’t trust people with silly names like that.

But consider Kay. Kay… A strong, solid, reliable kinda name. And it happens to be the name of Cullen’s wife. Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas: The English Patient) is a member of Congress from New Hampshire, in the middle of a tough reelection campaign. She’s one of a rare breed: an honest politician. Honestly!

Likeliness is not a factor in relationship porn. In fact, the more implausible the story, the better — the point is to drag the audience away from boring reality. So when 1) Dutch finally comes bearing the news to Kay that, Guess what? Our dead spouses were having an affair; 2) She, previously oblivious to her husband’s infidelity, tells him in no uncertain terms to buzz off and leave her alone; and 3) He does not comply, we should not be surprised that she does not respond to his stalking her with all this unpleasantness by calling up the FBI or somebody (she’s a member of Congress, after all, she must have some kind of security detail to call on for help). He keeps digging around, desperate to find out all the sweaty, nasty details of his wife’s affair no matter who gets hurt. And as we should expect from this kind of movie, Kay starts to see his need to spread the grief around not as selfish and obsessive but as an expression of the torment his wife’s dual betrayal — cheating on him and then dying on him — is putting him through. Oh, the anguish! Will he ever be able to Love Again?

Of course he will. Before long he’s having relationship-porn sex with Kay. After a ridiculous, frenzied explosion of passion in her car, of all places, they’re soon at his cabin making romantic, soft-focus, unseen-below-the-waist love. By candlelight.

Slow, draggy, and old-fashioned in the worst kind of way, Random Hearts gets bogged down not only in the silly relationship but in a subplot — so large that it threatens to overwhelm the main story — about a cop on the take (Dennis Haysbert: The Thirteenth Floor, Absolute Power) whom Dutch is investigating, which allows ample opportunity for director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa) to completely waste the talents of Charles Dutton (Mimic, A Time to Kill) as Dutch’s partner. Based on a novel by Warren Adler (this crap is always written by men), the wandering Hearts also permits Pollack and screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan to show you more than you probably ever wanted to know about all the cleaning up that goes on after a plane crash.

Unless you wish your husband was more like Harrison Ford, you’re unlikely to find much to appreciate in Random Hearts.

Broken hearts
Message in a Bottle is as fine (I use the term loosely) an example of relationship porn as you’ll find. Every element is perfectly positioned for maximum effect, to make neglected females pine for its version of a Real Man.

Just so there is no doubt how pathetically forlorn Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright: Forrest Gump) is, Message opens with the Chicagoan dropping her adorable moppet of a son (Jesse James: Gods and Monsters, As Good as It Gets) off in Boston with his father, her ex — Dad arrives at the airport to meet the kid with his new wife (cue the possessive draping of his arm around her shoulders) and their new baby in tow. Theresa pops out to a Cape Cod B&B for the weekend before heading home, where she spurns the gentle advances (basically, a “hello”) from the handsome man sitting by himself at breakfast — “recently divorced,” the innkeeper informs her. Jogging along the beach, Theresa makes the relationship-porn discovery of a lifetime: a letter, obviously written by a man to a beloved woman, in a bottle, washed up on the sand.

How to find the writer of this letter? Fortunately, Theresa works for the Chicago Tribune, as a researcher for columnist Charlie Toschi (Robbie Coltrane). Theresa reads the impossibly romantic letter to all the girls in the office, who clasp their hands to their chests and sigh, which attracts Charlie’s attention. He publishes the letter in his column, and Bingo! Baskets of mail come in, a few of which contain other letters found in bottles along beaches that sound as if they might be written by the same guy.

The plausibility factor really gets pushed to the max here: What are the chances that bottles thrown into the ocean off North Carolina’s Outer Banks — to where Theresa, through obsessive research, traces their origin — would all end up in the hands of people who not only live within the Chicago metropolitan area but also happen to read the Tribune?

Doesn’t matter. The search for the perfect man will brook no obstacles. Theresa wants the newspaper to finance a trip to North Carolina, but Charlie warns her, “You’re thinking Heathcliff and this guy is probably Captain Ahab.” The letter writer turns out even better than Heathcliff, though: He’s Kevin Costner. He can’t act much but, God, he’s cute as hell. And he hurts. His secretly tender heart is broken into a thousand pieces by the untimely death of his wife.

Garret Blake (Costner: The Postman, Dances with Wolves) — a manly kind of name — restores old boats — a manly kind of job. But he has a sensitive side, too: He cooks. He keeps his wife’s studio — she was a painter — just as she left it, as a shrine to her memory. And he pines and pines and pines.

Pretending to have no idea that he is the author of the letters that have all of distaff Chicago in a swoon, Theresa engineers a meeting with him. Naturally, they’re perfect for each other, which means that the audience must endure a falling-in-love montage that includes a marshmallow fight — a nice metaphor for Message in a Bottle itself, which throws lots of sticky, gooey, too-sweet stuff at us.

Theresa must never have seen any relationship porn — if she had, she’d have known that it would be a mistake to keep hidden the fact that she knows Garret’s big secret: It means that the “Trust you? How can I ever trust you?” speech is coming, along with a breakup in the rain.

It’s all Hollywood-neat and tidy and shiny and glossy and assembled, right down to the ending that is designed to make the audience want to tear their hearts out. Passionless and emotionally hollow (only Paul Newman as Garret’s dad has any electricity onscreen), Message in a Bottle is full of beautiful blond people being prettily sad, with tinkly piano music and golden sunsets as accompaniment.

And once again, the perpetrators are male: director Luis Mandoki, novelist Nicholas Sparks, screenwriter Gerald Di Pego. What does it mean that men are the ones pushing this phony romantic junk on women? Is it only that there are comparatively so few movies written and directed by women that the job is left to men by default?

Obviously, there is a market for these movies. I, though, find them incredible boring and predictable. Am I the only one? Doesn’t anyone besides me want to see more realistic love stories once in a while?

Random Hearts
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated R for brief violence, sexuality and language
official site | IMDB

Message in a Bottle
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality
official site | IMDB

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