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Message in a Bottle

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Kevin Costner, Robin Wright, ...

I can’t imagine it’s easy being Kevin Costner. Yeah, I know, big movie star, multimillion-dollar paydays, boo-hoo for him. Still, the last few years had to have put a dent in the guy’s self-esteem. After being lionized as a new Gary Cooper in the late ’80s, Costner has been vilified as a latter-day Marlon Brando for the late ’90s, thanks to overstuffed epics like ”Waterworld” that stand as paradigms of messianic, humorless bloat.

One gets the sense that this rankles the man. Costner’s fellow superstars don’t seem to have this problem: Harrison Ford sails over his few naysayers with class; Mel Gibson outfoxes them with sass; Teflon Tom Cruise has no use for doubters. (Then again, none of those guys made ”The Postman.”) Costner, on the other hand, comes across as someone who wouldn’t mind taking a poke at one of his critics, professional or otherwise.

I would argue that that’s why he’s good. In fact, that air of aggrieved tetchiness is both the hallmark of Costner’s on-screen persona and the source of his finest performances. You can see it in sports films like ”Bull Durham,” ”Field of Dreams,” and ”Tin Cup” — still the best work he’s ever done (to no surprise, and some relief, Costner’s next film is the baseball romance ”For Love of the Game”). It’s invisible in the earnest, simpleminded pageantry of ”Dances With Wolves.” And surprisingly, it’s there — that ticked-off, take-no-crap truculence — in the oft-forgotten genre films that stud Costner’s filmography, including the new-to-tape Message in a Bottle, a throwback to the shameless, four-hankie women’s films of Hollywood’s golden age.

”Message in a Bottle” doesn’t offer even minimal complexity — yet Costner still gives funky shadings to a patently dippy role. He plays Garret Blake (swoon), an Outer Banks shipbuilder so lost in grief for his dead wife that he writes her letters and posts them to the waves; one of those missives is found by a hard-bitten newswoman/single mother (Robin Wright Penn) who goes all gooey when she meets this ”natural man.” Directed by Luis Mandoki as a near homage to swank 1950s melodramas like Douglas Sirk’s ”All That Heaven Allows,” ”Message” is 200-proof corn, and that, oddly, is its strength. A movie this unapologetically unhip is something of a novelty in 1999.

It helps, too, that the cast includes Paul Newman as the shipbuilder’s grizzled pop. But Costner’s no slouch, either. When we first meet Garret, his face is like a mossy, darkened house, and the way the actor lets the lights flicker back on one by one is both appreciably subtle and true to the genre. It’s not his fault if the film’s over-the-top ending seems designed less to wring viewers’ hearts than to kick them in the teeth. And it makes one wish old Kev would set his sights a little lower than yet another postapocalyptic epic.