In today’s romantic-fairy-tale movies, it’s not enough to fall in love. You’ve got to fall in love with love — to swoon over the tingly old-fashionedness of it, to dare yourself to reach for permanence in a fickle, jerry-built world. Anything short of that, and you’ve merely fallen in like. You’ve Got Mail may culminate with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a ”romantic” clinch, but the image has no resonance (and not just because it feels like it was negotiated by the stars’ agents). Neither character appears genuinely overcome by love’s ferocity, and without that sense of splendor, of grand passion, the two are just yuppies merging lips. Message in a Bottle is a different story. Adapted from Nicholas Sparks’ 1998 best-seller, the picture isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s a true all-stops-out gusher, the sort of solemn contemporary hankie-fest in which a sweet, smart, lonely-at-the-core professional woman takes a break from the big city, with its faxes and e-mails and corporate disloyalty, and travels to a small town straight out of the American past, where she proceeds to fall for the Last Romantic Man.

The woman, in this case, is Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn), a beautiful and melancholy divorced mother who works as a researcher within the bustling glass cubicles of the Chicago Tribune. The man is Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), a lonely North Carolina sailboat builder who has retreated to a place, you know, inside himself in the two years since his wife died. Everything about Garret is a sign of his Romantic Man-ness. He rises at dawn to go to the local fisherman’s diner, he boasts a crinkly smile and windblown tan, he drinks Budweiser and makes the perfect steak (”It’s the best thing I do”), and he’s got a crusty old dad named Dodge, played by that original Last Romantic Man, Paul Newman, who doesn’t just deliver his lines — he hangs them out to dry. Did I mention that Garret also types gloomily enraptured letters to his beloved dead wife, which he then stuffs into bottles and sends bobbing out to sea?

Theresa discovers one of these ghostly missives washed up on a Cape Cod beach, and through the miracle of technology she traces it to the Carolina coast. She arrives, technically on a research assignment for the paper, but really to come face-to-face with the sort of man who could actually love someone forever. Garret is that man — and that’s the problem. One look at the goldilocked Theresa, and he’s smitten (he wastes no time inviting her over for one of those perfect steaks). The trouble is, he’s so obsessed with his late wife, with the notion that she was his one and only, that he won’t allow himself to take the plunge. The wife’s pointillist paintings are hung all over the house, reminders of the severed dream he still clings to.

Message in a Bottle is like a Hallmark version of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. On paper, at least, the film sounds unbearably schlocky, but Costner does with this wayward Marlboro Man what Robert Redford couldn’t quite do with his in The Horse Whisperer: He plays Garret the reluctant backcountry prince as mythic yet also foxy and lifesize — a man lost within the deep folds of his romantic nature (an intriguing dilemma in a movie that pleads for romance). Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography makes a lushly cozy spectacle of the small-town American seacoast (the film was actually shot in Maine), with its schooners and shacks and lighthouses, and the movie seems to take its cue from his misty, befogged images. You just about want to curl up inside the frames.

Robin Wright Penn is a curious actress. She has a lovely, thoughtful aura but not much personality — she lacks the inner fire of a star. Yet her pensive tranquility works just fine here, allowing Costner to become the film’s unalloyed object of desire. When Garret pops up in Chicago, I was greatly relieved that the film didn’t turn into a ”Crocodile” Dundee culture clash. After a momentary cataclysm, he heads south to build his sailboat, and it’s up to Theresa to chase him down. The two actors look great together, but Message in a Bottle doesn’t labor to be sexy. Even as the film moves toward its teary finale, its vision of a second-chance relationship is really rather modest. It turns the promise of cocooning into the ultimate seduction. B

Message in a Bottle

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Luis Mandoki