What willful streak of perversity inspired Kevin Costner to take on this wacky tale of a letter carrier-turned-postapocalyptic hero, brother to such he-men as Seinfeld‘s Newman and that sad, skinny guy in Il Postino? (Answer: He’s already done the bodyguard-turned-hero story.) What blinkered sense of movie structure compelled him to drag the outlandish story out over three hours? (Answer: two Oscars for Dances With Wolves.) And what extraordinary chutzpah drove him to declare that anyone who isn’t moved by his stirring message of hope and patriotism is a jaded cynic—or, even worse, is influenced by one? (Answer: Beats me.)
In The Postman, Costner plays a drifter who roams the remains of the Pacific Northwest in 2013, after technological destruction has made the place a wasteland as dry as Waterworld was briny. Scrounging for meals by reciting scraps of Shakespeare to people who have forgotten all literature but are experts in knitting Comme des Garêons-style sweaters, the fellow stumbles across the uniform and undelivered mail sack of a dead man, and, thinking the USPS badge of authority will get him food and shelter, calls himself The Postman, a representative of the United States government.
Townspeople swoon. Women throw themselves at him, none more ardently than a comely married lass (British actress Olivia Williams) who craves his mailmanliness to make the baby her boyish husband can’t. Reluctantly, The Postman becomes the galloping symbol of American optimism, beating back tyranny (in the person of Will Patton as a fascistic rogue general), inspiring young people to follow in his sack-slinging footsteps, and bringing on a joyous era of letter writing not seen since Virginia Woolf sat at her desk. In the end, The Postman heals an entire nation, so much so that long after he is gone, when citizens once again look like mall shoppers instead of knitwear mannequins, a heroic statue—of Kevin Costner on a horse!—is unveiled in his memory.
There are moments in this spectacularly eccentric production—Costner’s first directing gig since Wolves—when Brian Helgeland and Eric Roth’s script hints at a welcome self-awareness. (”How much did you pay to come in? So bite me,” the loner challenges a heckler at one of his theatrical performances.) But those moments are about as rare as a day without junk mail. When he turns on the aging-jock charm, as he did in Tin Cup, Costner is still one of our most attractive American-guy movie stars. But in The Postman, he continues his alternative career as one of our oddest movie talents. D