Moonlight Mile (review)

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Sarcastic Grief

There’s no question that movies should be seen in a movie theater: big screen, big sound, big audience. But God, there’s times when I wish I were home alone in the privacy of my own living room, so I could bawl my eyes out. Sure, I could bawl my eyes out in the movie theater and let myself be wracked by sobs and run out of Kleenex (and what to do with the soggy mass of crumbled Kleenex already in your hands?) and endure the half-embarrassed, half-amused glances from fellow moviegoers. But I’m just not that socially confident. Plus, a mere trickle of tears turns my eyes bloodshot and puffy — the kind of bawling I’m talking about makes me look like I’ve been punched in the face, and no one needs to see that while they’re finishing up the dregs of their popcorn.
Not too many movies have so overwhelmed me emotionally that I needed to strictly limit my sobbing allowance. Truly Madly Deeply is one — Moonlight Mile is another. I doubt it’s a coincidence that both are about grief: the disconnect we feel with the rest of the world when we lose someone we care about, the feeling of betrayal that comes with letting our initial sadness go and getting on with life. If you’re lucky enough not to have experienced debilitating grief, Moonlight Mile might seem oddly disrespectful in its black humor, but I gotta tell ya, that’s what’s so special about this extraordinary film. It doesn’t tiptoe around like the distant relatives at the funeral who smile those wan, faux sympathetic smiles at you, the one that pretends to understand how you’re feeling and secretly hates that you’ve put them in this awkward spot. Moonlight Mile is the smack in the face you wish you could dispense in reply.

Writer/director Brad Silberling (redeeming himself for the unfortunate City of Angels) has taken his own journey through grief — his just-about fiancée, sitcom actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was murdered by a crazed fan in 1989, after which he grew very close to her parents — and transformed the personal into something phenomenally moving, achieving a level of sincerity that so few films ever do. After the unexpected death of his fiancée, Diana Floss, Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal: The Good Girl, Donnie Darko) finds himself mired in a morass of the leftover expectations of her parents, Ben (Dustin Hoffman: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Wag the Dog) and Jo (Susan Sarandon: The Banger Sisters, Igby Goes Down) — he’s not sure that he still wants to go into the real-estate business with Ben, as was the original plan for his life with Diana, but he’s not sure what else he’d wants to do, either. All three of them are, in fact, rudderless with grief: Jo, a writer, can’t write and falls back into her bad habits of drinking and smoking, and Ben pretends to keep busy with work when actually he’s only running in circles, avoiding himself. And then Joe meets Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), the local postmistress, who grieves herself for a lost love.

But, man, there’s not an iota of bathos or soap opera in any of it — it’s all just bitingly sarcastic, with the kind of mordant humor that only a slap- in- the- face reminder of the evanescence of everything can bring out. People die, and boy, do they do it with a vengeance, and now Joe, Ben, and Jo are privy to a secret of the universe that the puny ignoramuses around them can’t possibly understand. Sarandon, Hoffman, and Gyllenhaal are positively defiant: don’t even bother to question the illogic of the neither-here-nor-thereness of their grief (Jo, in the weeks after her daughter’s death, hates when friends acknowledge her loss, and hates when they don’t, and that’s just how it is), but don’t you dare feel sorry for them, either. It takes an extraordinary perspicacity to distill so confusing and life-altering an experience in so potent a way: recognizing the terrible bewilderment of the situation, how the people we love continue to influence and affect you even after their deaths (Diana, who appears only fleetingly and ghostlike in Joe’s dreams, is as palpable a character as any other here, for all the impact she’s had on him and her parents), how good, sometimes even wonderful things can happen in the wake of such a loss, and how horrible it sounds to say such a thing.

So amazed kudos to Silberling, but also to the cast, especially Gyllenhaal, who, in his first genuinely adult role, is simply astounding. (The pitch-perfect performances by everyone are enough to make you bawl, too, from the sheer joy of being in the presence of a flawlessly realized film.) As a young man caught in an impossible situation — especially impossible for anyone more concerned with causing pain in others than in himself, as Joe is — he’s so naturalistic that it pains you to think he may have some real experience to draw on. And if he’s just faking it? Hoo, what an actor.

Moonlight Mile constantly surprises, its humor keeps continually sneaking up on you, like you suspect the film will eventually settle into overwrought hand-wringing and instead throws out another wicked barb, one to make you laugh through your tears… or cry through your laughter. This is a brilliant, tremendously human film.

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