Published January 1, 1999
Here is the story of Message in a Bottle, directed by Luis Madoki. A desperately sad widower and boat-builder, the strikingly handsome Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), puts letters to his dead wife in bottles and throws the bottles into the sea. They are found by a beautiful young, unattached single mother called Theresa (Robin Wright Penn) who, on the strength of them, falls in love with the writer. She works in the research department of the Chicago Tribune and, with the encouragement of her lovably curmudgeonly editor, Charlie (Robbie Coltrane), and her lovably girlish best friend, Lina (Ileana Douglas), she tracks him down to his picturesque home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There, despite the fact that he does not speak with a Carolinean accent, Garret has lived almost all his life.
Next door lives his lovably curmudgeonly father, Dodge (Paul Newman), who is supposed to be a retired fisherman though he, too, talks like a Yankee and looks far more dapper and soigné than any old fisherman I’ve ever seen. Instead of telling Garret that she has come about the letters, Theresa pretends to be an ordinary tourist. Within days she has induced him to fall as deeply in love with her as she already is with him. She returns to Chicago. He follows her. But—wouldn’t you know it?—he finds the letters in her drawer and accuses her of deceiving him, and of reading letters intended for the dead wife. He also finds there a letter that the now dead wife had written and thrown into the sea. It tells him how much she loved him. This softens his wrath. Then his lovable old curmudgeon of a father tells him that he has to choose between the past and the present. He chooses, but fate takes a hand. . .
Now see if you can tell what’s wrong with this picture.
Of course, a guy who throws love letters to his dead wife into the ocean, sealed up in a bottle, is not grieving but engaging in emotional exhibitionism. Those letters were meant to be found, and meant to be found by exactly the sort of person who did find them. “Why did you do this?” he moans at her in mock anger. Because you invited her to do it, dummy! Garret’s getting angry at her for not telling him that she found the letters, and for coming between him and his precious grief, is silly and bogus, as is almost everything else about this movie. Although it purports to be about a widower’s grief for his dead wife, it isn’t really at all. It’s really just to allow Kevin Costner another chance at defining the look of the sensitive male of the 90s. Once more he is striking romantic attitudes, which is what he does instead of acting.
But the grief doesn’t look like grief. It doesn’t have that messiness, those jagged edges. This is grief sentimentalized, just as the Outer Banks, played by Maine, are sentimentalized by the picture-post-card photography. The emotion like the pictures is meant to be seen. This is grief as a means of picking up chicks. “It’s so beautiful, the way you love her; it’s what made me want to find you,” says Theresa swooningly. Gee, I’ll bet old Garret never would have guessed that she’d feel like that! The question is, would Costner have guessed it? If so, he is just cynically exploiting false emotion, like an author of cheap romance novels. But I’m guessing that he’s dumber than that. The fact that he has made so many disastrous artistic misjudgments of the same kind suggest that he doesn’t even know he’s a phony. It is very much to his credit.