Message in a Bottle is like a Nora Ephron movie on Prozac. It wholeheartedly believes in the power of love, but it has a little trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Robin Wright Penn is Theresa, a lonely (we know she's lonely because her hair's stringy) single mom from Chicago who, on a vacation at the seashore, discovers a bottle stuck in the sand. Inside the bottle is a message from a distraught man to his dead wife--a message meant to have a Pavlovian effect on our tear ducts. Theresa wants to find this guy, and because she's a researcher at a major newspaper, it's a lot easier for her to do than it would be for you or me. The thing is, the guy--a sailboat builder who lives in the Outer Banks region of North Carolina--doesn't really want to be found. He would prefer to wallow in his grief. And so would the movie, apparently. As a man who loved once and may never love again, Costner seems so bummed out that he starts to bum us out. Underplaying isn't his strong suit; it flattens him, takes the spark out of his eye. Some actors can just stand there and hold our attention. Costner needs to be swinging a baseball bat or a golf club. The movie only gets something going when Costner briefly pulls himself out of his funk. As for Wright Penn, she acts up a little storm, and so does Paul Newman as a crotchety old guy who's tired of watching his son drown in his own tears. At 74, Newman's sprinkling more stardust than ever these days. Costner and Gibson should study every move he's made in the last 30 years.
Set in the cold, muddy French village of Ambricourt, Robert Bresson's 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest may be the bleakest demonstration of God's grace in cinema history. Estranged from both his parishioners and his own wasted-away body, a young clergyman makes his way to the sweet hereafter on a diet of crusty bread soaked in wine, all the while recording his thoughts in a journal. Drawing parallels between the priest's agony and Christ's during the last portion of his life, this spare though technically accomplished film is about the overwhelming power of grace--the way it can cause one to forsake this life for the next. *