In ”Ordinary People,” the young Timothy Hutton skulked around with a pale, buttoned-up face, holding in feelings he was too numb to feel, and audiences connected with his depression because it had the messy, sincere wounded-ness of deep-dish adolescent turmoil. In Moonlight Mile, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a troubled young man who is also holding in his feelings, yet with his big, dark doe eyes and Cupid-gone-Mona Lisa smile, Gyllenhaal looks as placid and innocent in his funk as the winner of the Tobey Maguire act-alike sweepstakes.
What is it with the new generation of cover-boy stars? Even some of the most gifted ones, like Gyllenhaal, seem to rotate instinctively toward having the rubbery-sweet temperamental consistency of human Gummi Bears. ”Moonlight Mile,” a small-town family weeper of tragedy and recovery, feels a bit like ”In the Bedroom: The Lost Prime-Time Season.” The writer-director, Brad Silberling (”City of Angels”), based the movie in part on the 1989 death of his own girlfriend, the actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and then built it around the studied elfin moroseness of Gyllenhaal’s presence. Silberling invites us to revel in the five stages of grief, but the film’s real intent is to soothe rather than pierce, to make sadness look cozy and domesticated. Its subject might better be described as the five flavors of grief.
Grief, for example, can be whimsical. In ”Moonlight Mile,” Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal) looks scarcely old enough to be out of high school, let alone to have a fiancée, but he did, in fact, have one, and he has just lost her to a freak act of random homicide. It seems that the perpetrator was a madman who marched into a coffee shop and fired several shots at his own wife. She survived; Joe’s fiancée, who happened to be sitting next to her, didn’t. Joe, frozen in his spiritual tracks, has been staying with her parents, Ben and JoJo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), and as the three of them get up on a peaceful sunny morning and prepare to go to the funeral, we watch Joe take a shower and, at Ben’s behest, dump an extra spoonful of Pepto-Bismol into the dog’s breakfast bowl. The whole ironic rise-and-shine montage is accompanied by one of those coyly New Age, profoundly annoying post-”American Beauty” marimba soundtracks that’s there to tell the audience, ”Yes, everyday life is strange. But don’t worry, it will all work out!”
Grief, as we learn, can also be funny, as when the dog tosses his cookies all over the post-wake reception, or when Ben, with crusty compulsiveness, insists on answering every sympathetic phone call while JoJo, his brittle, sarcastic truth teller of a wife, dismisses the tut-tutting well-wishers with a wisecrack and a grimace. ”It pisses me off when they ask about her,” she says, ”and it pisses me off when they don’t!” Hoffman, playing this benign putterer, works hard to tamp down his ego (a mixed blessing for the audience), and Sarandon brings a bitchy showbiz bite to her scenes and does a moving job of delivering an overly tidy speech about what holds a marriage together.
Still, don’t get out your handkerchiefs just yet. Grief can also rock! ”Moonlight Mile” is set in New England in the early ’70s, and one of the few reasons you would ever guess it’s set in the ’70s, apart from a couple of incongruous references to Vietnam, is that Silberling disrupts, and hip-ifies, the movie’s feel-good glaze by making canny if all too easy use of a number of blistering period singles. The funeral procession glides down the road to Sly and the Family Stone’s ”I Want to Take You Higher,” a real estate convention gets spanked along to the fuzzbox strut of T. Rex’s ”Twentieth Century Boy,” and Joe reduces the local watering hole to E.F. Hutton silence by dropping a coin in the jukebox, firing up the Rolling Stones’ elegiac ”Moonlight Mile,” and slow-dancing with the joint’s sexy, sad-eyed lady of a bartender, whom he met cute in her other job at the post office. The barkeep is played by newcomer Ellen Pompeo, who comes off as a slinkier Deadhead version of Renée Zellweger; she’s got a sun-dazed appeal.
But wait a minute. Why would the earnest and moody Joe, a nice guy who is still drying tears over his fiancée’s demise, placate himself with boozy public flirtations? Could he really be that insensitive? Not in a Brad Silberling tearjerker. Joe turns out to be nursing a Big Secret, and when it emerges, ”Moonlight Mile,” a movie with all the edge of vanilla almond coffee, turns into a halfway watchable piece of prestige schlock. The conflict in Joe’s heart is genuine and underplayed, even if it does involve letting go of his guilt. If only the film didn’t work so hard to make everybody so nice.
Joe’s cleaving to his replacement parents, letting himself replace the child whose loss they have yet to confront, is a sticky, fraught situation that Silberling reduces to a pileup of TV episodes. Joe has to recover the wedding invitations; he joins Ben in the real estate business; he must testify at the killer’s trial; and so forth. The episodes, inevitably, can lead to only one thing: healing. In ”Ordinary People,” at least one character — Mary Tyler Moore’s — had to fall so that the others could survive. In ”Moonlight Mile,” no one gets shut out of the hug cycle.