Right Cast Wrong Message

There may be stranger things in life than Paul Newman playing the father of Kevin Costner, but nothing comes to mind. In Message in a Bottle , a sudsy love story with a few enjoyable elements and many likable people, the world’s sexiest septuagenarian is the most enjoyable and watchable of them all. But Paul Newman as a grizzled, salty old sailor who drops in from time to time to dispense pearls of wisdom and straighten out the young folks? Mr. Newman has been given the Walter Brennan part when he should be doing the love scenes.

Message in a Bottle has other problems, none of which have anything to do with Mr. Newman, who is great to have around under any circumstances. For the most part, it’s a meticulous, intelligent and beautifully photographed (by the skillful cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) soap opera about two troubled lovers brought together and often painfully separated by the fickle finger of fate.

After an ugly divorce, Theresa (Robin Wright Penn) vows never to fall in love again, substituting her work as a researcher at the Chicago Tribune and the responsibility of raising her son alone for the absence of a fulfilling romantic relationship. Removed, driven and determined to avoid vulnerability at all costs, Theresa is nonetheless overcome with compassion when she finds a bottle washed ashore on a Cape Cod beach containing a love letter written by an anonymous man poignantly pouring his heart out to a lost love.

When a colleague at the newspaper writes a column about the message in the bottle, betraying Theresa’s confidence, the reader response is so tremendous that her obsession intensifies. Using all of her resources at the paper, she tracks down the identity of the mysterious, sentimental author to the outer banks of North Carolina, where he turns out to be a lonely sailboat builder named Garret Blake (Mr. Costner).

He is so emotionally blocked since the tragic death of his wife that he has become a local oddball, closing himself off in grief against everything in the world except his curmudgeonly, raspy-voiced old goat of a dad (Hello, Mr. Newman!). Invading their sanctuary under false pretenses (Theresa smells a front-page byline), the girl melts the heart of the man and a mating ritual begins that includes marshmallow fights on the beach and all-night sailing under a voodoo moon.

He’s haunted by memories of a dead wife, she’s obsessed with a message in a bottle, and although the movie crawls along at the pace of a snail’s saliva, I was grateful for the opportunity to watch two sensitive, guarded people break down their defenses slowly and fall in love at a cautious real-life tempo. Theresa eventually learns to care about something other than herself, Garret finds his hidden heart, and Dad forces them both to choose between yesterday and tomorrow.

So far, so good. Then something ghastly happens, robbing the love story of a happy ending and devastating the audience. If you’re familiar with the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks on which the film is based, you know the ending already. If not, I won’t be a cad and give it away. I will, however, say that after investing two hours in the lives of these people, we deserve more than terminal depression for a payoff.

Meanwhile, you get surprisingly thoughtful work from Mr. Costner when you least expect it. He’s a new man here-gentle, contemplative, nervous, awkward, imperfect, not at all cocky, even slightly paunchy, displaying vulnerable qualities he never gets a chance to play in other movies. Robin Wright Penn has an uncloying decency made more appealing by her slightly thorny, no-nonsense edge. Mr. Newman may have passed 70, but he’s still too vital a presence to play second banana to either of them. And director Luis Mandoki dresses up the scenery with superb support by Robbie Coltrane, John Savage, Bethel Leslie, Rosemary Murphy, Tom Aldredge and Illeana Douglas.

A lot of obvious detail has gone into making us believe in what is basically a preposterous premise, but the existential drama of the alienated hero who rediscovers and redefines his identity through the love of a good woman is couched in the form of a fairy tale upholstered in glossy magazine ads. The seriousness of the project is undermined by yuppie complacency, shameless devices (starting with her kid and his unfinished boat) and product plugs. Thanks to first-rate performances and romantic postcard views of coastal sunsets (Maine is the unlikely stand-in for North Carolina), the film is engaging. But there’s still that nagging feeling that it forgets about some of the problems it sets up rather than attempting to resolve them.

Movies shouldn’t follow rules, but there’s nothing wrong with making audiences-hopefully vast audiences-feel good about what they’ve just seen. Message in a Bottle messes around with our feelings and leaves us feeling lousy. It sets up an implausible situation, lures us into its glamorous possibilities with attractive, sympathetic, lonely people who are good for each other, makes us care, then drops a tall building on their heads. How are we supposed to feel about that? We feel cheated. For anyone looking for final, happy resolutions, it’s a bummer. I think the point is that even nice people fail in life, but it’s not a comforting feeling when they do it in the movies.

Naughton: Fast And Fine-Tuned

With so little of it around, James Naughton spreads joy like marmalade. In his superb new one-man show, Street of Dreams , at the Promenade Theater, the seasoned actor-singer-director uses the title song as the departure point for a trip down memory lane, escorting his audience on a guided tour of styles, tempos and musical idioms as versatile as he is. The show has flavor, depth, comic rhythm and dramatic pace. Things may be slow at the office. Things are slow in bed. Things are slow all over. But not when James Naughton is around.

I didn’t see his earlier run at the Manhattan Theater Club, where much of the material in this show originated, but I did see him trying out some of it in the summer cabaret series up at the Williamstown Theater Festival, where he’s an annual fixture. He’s polished, honed and fine-tuned it since then, until it has the efficiency of a well-oiled Porsche, and he performs every number in every style with wit, charm and sophistication in the manner of a genial host entertaining after dinner in a comfortable, laid-back living room. He ambles on stage lazily, high-fives his musicians and makes you feel instantly at home as he sails into the Duke Ellington classic “Just a Lucky So-and-So” with the relaxed nonchalance of a lounge lizard. From here on, he reminds us of every experience we ever had in life, from our first prom to our first assignation.

With his velvety baritone, he croons “Stardust” like a prairie dog baying at a Texas moon. On the tongue-twisting Hank Snow song “I’ve Been Everywhere” each successive chorus of this litany of towns and states is speeded up a notch until he’s rattling off the Rand McNally faster than you can pop your fingers. (He learned the song in six days, but it would take most performers six days just to sing it, even in Nashville.)

Moving into jazz, his witty send-up of square, obnoxious hepcats pretending to be cool (“I even call my girlfriend Man”) on Dave Frishberg’s funny “I’m Hip” has three endings, all flat. Then to prove how hip he really is, he tackles a stunning vocalise on King Pleasure’s “Moody’s Mood for Love” that re-creates the lyrical lines of James Moody’s famous sax solo on “I’m in the Mood For Love.”

He can shift gears, from a gently swinging “Pennies From Heaven,” performed in the Bob Eberle style of the 1930’s, to dreamy ballads like “She’s Funny That Way” and “You Are There,” as effortlessly as the valves on a slide trombone. The close harmony arranged for his voice, his guitarist’s voice and the voice of his skilled pianist John Oddo (the man who is most often heralded as the genius behind Rosemary Clooney) brings back the Mills Brothers’ “Glow Worm” in one of the show’s most imaginative feats. Dated as a dodo, but delightful.

From pop rock to deeply contemplative jazz, he has the talent to extract the essence of Elvis Presley and Jon Hendricks without batting an eye, and I was particularly impressed with the clever way he sets up Billy Strayhorn’s legendary “Lush Life” with some of the hard-boiled detective dialogue he spoke in the Broadway musical City of Angels . He’s rugged, virile, suave, a winning combination of Gary Cooper and a prep school coach, and a wonderfully accomplished musician.

The musical menu is as fresh as his personality and he serves it without a wilted green or accidentally flattened fifth in sight. (Not an Andrew Lloyd Webber song in sight, either, thank you Jesus.) What a package. What a talent. What a show. What a pleasure, to share some quality time with a guy who is not only making a living but loving the living while doing it. Right Cast Wrong Message