Like many people my interest in seeing "Moonlight Mile" had as much to do with the fact writer-director Brad Silberling's story stems in part from the tragic murder of his girlfriend Rebecca Schaeffer as it does with the cast featuring a trio of Oscar winners in Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, and Holly Hunter. However, it is not fair to characterize this film as a cathartic exercise on Silberling's part; the genesis for the film's story is more the relationship he shared with the parents of his girlfriend than her murder. Those looking for strong parallels between fact and fiction will be disappointed, because the resonance of this film has to do with the relationship between young Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhall) and the couple who were almost his in-laws, Ben (Hoffman) and JoJo Floss (Sarandon). It is in trying to keep talking and to find ways of just functioning while they are overwhelmed by grief that we can convince ourselves Silberling is sharing with us "truth" about what it would be like to be in the shoes of such people.
When "Moonlight Mile" begins it is three days after Diana Floss (Careena Melia) was shot in an ice cream shoppe across the street from her father's commercial reality office. A guy walked in intending to gun down his wife; she received two bullets in the head but survived, while Diana was killed. Now Joe finds himself living with Ben and JoJo trying to figure out what to do next. Part of this is becoming Ben's partner in what will now be called "Floss & Son," although commercial realty in a small New England economically depressed town in the early 1970s does not make much sense. But Ben has lost a daughter and apparently now wants a son, while the tart tongued JoJo has stopped writing, and in the absence of a plan for his life Joe feels obligated to help them deal with their loss.
Before we can decide what this movie is going to be about it takes a sudden turn. Ben wakes up and realizes that he never stopped the printer from sending out the invitations to the wedding that is never going to happen and wants Joe to stop them from being mailed out ("It would just be too uncomfortable"). Joe ends up at the old fashioned local post office where he meets Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), who does not bat an eye at the idea of some strange guy walking into the place and wanting to pull 75 wedding invitations out of the mail. Ben is attracted to Bertie; it is impossible not to be because this is one of the most captivating appearances of a young female character in a film (think Kate Hudson in "Almost Famous"). But then it dawns on us that Ben's fiancé was just brutally murdered a few days earlier. Is Joe reaching out in his despair, incredibly shallow, or is there something else going on here?
So, suddenly a film about three people trying to get beyond the death of someone they love is competing with a romance. Do not worry, because eventually everything will make sense. What confused me the most was that this was a period film, because that was not especially clear to me. Why should the film be set in the early 1970s? It has to be for a reason more than having a dog named Nixon. But the Vietnam War comes into play because Bertie thinks Joe is a draft dodger at first (how else to explain why he is still in town) and more importantly because she also has lost someone: her boyfriend was declared M.I.A. in Vietnam three years earlier. Joe has found something of a kindred spirit.
"Moonlight Mile" is not a great film, despite the stellar cast, mainly because the deep dark secret that is the film's ticking time bomb ends up smacking more of melodrama than tragedy. It is one of those things that if you think about it rather than just accept it then the holes in the logic of it all become rather glaring. Ultimately the film belongs not to Brad Silberling or his surrogate character Joe, but rather to that of Bertie. It is rather amazing that Ellen Pompeo can steal this film from all those veteran actors with their Oscars. But if you can create a character in performance where it makes perfect sense that someone who just buried their fiancé the day before could be smitten with a total stranger, then you have got to be impressed. You can write what you want and do whatever with the lighting, but such magic can only be created by performance. Sarandon is totally on target in her role, as is Hunter, but Pompeo provides the memorable performance in this film.