Message in a Bottle (1999)

Message in a Bottle (1999)
  • Time: 131 min
  • Genre: Drama | Romance
  • Director: Luis Mandoki
  • Cast: Kevin Costner, Robin Wright, Paul Newman


A woman finds a romantic letter in a bottle washed ashore and tracks down the author, a widowed shipbuilder whose wife died tragically early. As a deep and mutual attraction blossoms, the man struggles to make peace with his past so that he can move on and find happiness.

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  • You can still see it — the reluctancy in Kevin Costner to reconcile himself with being a romantic leading man. Message in a Bottle demands it of him. Perhaps he needs to exercise his hubris to feel that he is acting, that anything other than three-hour epics that utilize all of his capabilities would only require him to coast on his charm. But Costner is blessed with charm — a quantity that is hard to come by — and the effortlessness with which that charm emanates is a talent not to be taken for granted.

    The irony is that this struggle is, in part, the secret to Costner’s appeal. His refusal to charm makes him all the more magnetic. That’s why he’s so sexy in a film like Bull Durham or Tin Cup — writer-director Ron Shelton knew how to showcase Costner’s homegrown charm, which doesn’t need much coaxing but he makes a woman believe that she is the only one capable of drawing it out. Message in a Bottle lets Costner have it both ways — he can be the strong, silent type for the women and etch a character for himself in the process — and the audience reaps the rewards.

    Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) jogs along the beach and discovers a bottle half-buried in the sand. Inside is a letter — it is from a man pouring out his feelings to a love that has died: “I feel I’ve been lost. No bearings, no compass. I could always steer home when you were home.” Theresa, moved by this lonely love, shares it with her coworkers at the Chicago Tribune. Much to her annoyance, her editor Charlie (Robbie Coltrane) prints it in the paper. Letters begin to shower the newsroom and Charlie tells Theresa to track down the identity of the man and see if there’s a further story. He warns against falling for whoever it turns out to be: “You’re thinking Heathcliff. You’re thinking Hamlet and this guy is probably Captain Ahab.”

    The man, she learns, is Garrett Blake (Costner). Without revealing her true purpose, Theresa gets herself a sailing invitation — Message in a Bottle, with its shots of coastal loveliness, is beautiful to look at if nothing else — with the laconic and guarded Garrett. There’s a striking early scene when Theresa meets him at the local diner only to find him in the middle of a scuffle with Johnny (John Savage), his brother-in-law who blames him for his sister’s death. The look that passes over Wright Penn’s face — the realization, the disappointment that this man, whose soul she thought she knew from the letters she read, is all too human. Yet he manages to endear her with his apologies and, after a day of sailing, they both find themselves awkwardly attracted to each other. “You eat meat?” he asks; it’s his idea of a dinner invitation (and it’s not as Neanderthal as it sounds). “I make a perfect steak. It’s the best thing I do.” “That’s very interesting. Thanks for telling me,” she smiles. He laughs.

    Message in a Bottle is a radiant love story of two broken hearts trying to heal each other. The drama derives from his past which is his present. His house — the house he shared with his wife — is filled with the ghost of her presence. Her paintings abound and her work station is as she left it, not a brush out of place. He knows he hasn’t let go. He admits to Theresa that he never thought about being close to anyone else, that he still feels his wife is close. “I don’t want to cheat you, Theresa,” he says. It’s this hesitancy that empowers the film and lends it its romantic melancholy. Costner and Wright Penn turn in straightforward, unfussy performances. Theresa tells Garrett of the time when she discovered her husband cheating on her. Wright Penn relates the story — Theresa saw her husband and the other woman in the park and she knew — and I believed her. I believed the memory. She tells it simply — she, of the runaway princess beauty.

    Watching Message in a Bottle, I thought of You’ve Got Mail where two soulmates fall in love with one another without having set eyes on each other — it’s their emails that have nurtured their hearts. Love in the technological age didn’t hold its appeal for me and Message in a Bottle only reinforces my faith in the lost art of letter writing. There’s an intimacy in a letter which could never be replicated in an email. The soul can flow through the pen and, though an email can be received by its recipient in a matter of minutes, it can never have the immediacy a letter that took a day or a week or a month for you to receive possesses. Theresa falls for Garrett because of that letter to his wife and it’s that very reason that separates them. And the sound of a typewriter! An old-fashioned typewriter with all its heavenly clicking!

    Lest I forget, Paul Newman costars as Costner’s crusty dad. Growling out sentences with rhythms like a telegram — “Dodge. Like the pickup,” he says, introducing himself to Theresa — he proves that older is better. “If I’d have been about 150 years younger, you’d be in trouble, young lady,” he tells Theresa. Mr. Newman, we’re still in trouble.

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