Moonlight Mile Jumps the Shark: Death by Courtroom Scene

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According to my handy dream dictionary, to dream that you are walking on water, as Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) does at the beginning of "Moonlight Mile," means that you need to stay on top of your emotions.

Since "Mile" opens with the funeral of Joe's recently murdered fiancée, his subconscious seems to be onto a good thing. Compared to his would-be in-laws, Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and JoJo (Susan Sarandon) Floss, Joe seems to be the one with the most tenuous sense of control: he chugs alcohol at the party following the funeral and has horrific nightmares of his fiancée coming back to haunt him. This is in marked contrast to the grieving parents, especially JoJo, who makes fun of the obnoxious party guests and tosses self-help books onto a merrily blazing fire.

This can't last, of course, and it soon becomes clear that the Flosses are hanging by an even thinner thread than Joe. JoJo can't write, Ben can't do whatever vague real estate-related thing he does, and neither parent can refer to their daughter by name, calling her instead, "The Girl." It is here, in the portrayal of how each individual deals with grief, that "Moonlight Mile" is on its surest footing.

"Mile" is writer/director Brad Silberling's second film, following 1998's "City of Angels," to confront the subject of grief and raise questions about love after death (third if you count 1995's dismal "Casper"), and this newest effort carries extra weight, as it is at least partially based on Silberling's own experiences. Silberling was dating actress Rebecca Schaeffer when she was murdered by a stalker in 1989, and the director's personal knowledge of the aftermath of such an event resonates throughout the film. The little details that make up the grieving process make the film seem, at times, hyper-real.

Which is why it's such a shame that everything realistic about the movie is shot to hell by a truly classic Moment of Shit (M.O.S., for short): a courtroom scene. Hollywood sucks at courtroom scenes, and if I had my way, I'd make the courtroom forbidden territory for all modern movies, unless someone can get Horton Foote, the guy who adapted "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the screen, to do the writing.

The hearing in "Moonlight Mile" is no exception; it's got all the standard M.O.S. qualities-a long speech from the witness box, teary-eyed looks of approval from members of the audience, and a judge who apparently fell asleep less than a minute in.

It's also got Rachel Singer, a character actress instantly recognizable from her roll in "Fight Club," in which she played a terminal cancer patient described as looking "how Meryl Streep's skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around the party being extra nice to everyone." Here she plays the wife and other victim of the man who murdered Joe's fiancée, wakened from her bullet-induced coma just in time to wave at her hubby right before Joe's big speech. Her presence serves as yet another way to jar the viewer away from the story and the characters they have up until then believed in enough to follow.

Why is the audience subjected to such a heady dose of clichés and B.S.? We never find out how the sleeping judge reacts to Joe's spiel; "Screw the verdict!" JoJo vehemently declares in a later scene. If the whole thing is inconsequential, then why include it in the first place? "Moonlight Mile" has a lot of things going for it-good performances, Silberling's excellent visual style, and the best use of dog vomit I have yet to encounter - but after a moment of such extreme falseness, it is virtually impossible for the film to recover. Joe's blossoming romance with a young woman (Ellen Pompeo), mourning a loss of her own, doesn't become less creepy when the truth about his relationship with his fiancée is revealed.

That Silberling isn't afraid to deal bluntly with tough emotions is admirable, but it doesn't stop "Mile" from being full of wrong turns. Joe dreams of walking on water, which is also thought to be a symbol of having faith in yourself. Too bad I lost faith in this movie two-thirds of the way through.


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