It’s hard to remember a time before author Nicholas Sparks unleashed his unholy reign of literary terror unto the world. In the case of filmic adaptations, the year was 1999 and the movie was Message in a Bottle. Surprisingly, the Sparks formula hadn’t be transcribed yet, so there’s a few moments that don’t follow my first point about established tropes; however, the movie is filled with redundant plot points that make little sense upon execution, and enough boat metaphors to make you wonder if the woman you’re sitting next to shouldn’t have a bottle of champagne smashed across her face. Here is My Summer with Sparks, Take One!
Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright) discovers a forlorn letter in a bottle washed on the shore – no, I didn’t intentionally mean to quote The Police – and decides to hunt down the man who wrote it. In doing so, she meets shipbuilder Garret Blake (Kevin Costner) who hasn’t been able to move past the death of his wife.
Okay, right off the bat you have a few Sparks-isms! You have a dead wife, a single woman, and a man who doesn’t exist in reality. I’m sorry, but Nicholas Sparks is the master of creating the ideal man for a woman who’s just like you; I believe I made that points number one, two, and four right there! The minute Theresa reads the letter to her friends (who are all women), they immediately quiver with the belief that’s there a man so sensitive he writes melancholy poetry and casts it off to sea. I half expected to see Douglas Fairbanks show up! Of course, the women have to tempered by a cynical man in the form of Theresa’s editor played by Hagrid…I mean Robbie Coltrane. To further show you that Garret is a manly man, he’s intent on building a ship. Sparks is in love with the idea of a man’s devotion for a woman leading him to create something from nature (in The Notebook it’s a house, here’s it’s a boat). Unfortunately, the script – written by Gerald Di Pego – gets all wrapped up in blatantly comparing women to boats, so of course the boat (which ends up being named after Garret’s dead wife) is the hollow representation of a human being.
I absolutely hate comparing women to anything! I love The Philadelphia Story, but Katharine Hepburn’s whole discussion about the “right boat” standing in for a woman irritates me. Every time these characters discussed boats, with the broad implication that they’re discussing women, I kept thinking of Rachel McAdams laughing about the stupid-ass sailing vows of her sister in Wedding Crashers; it never sounds anything less than stupid. And yet it’s employed several times throughout the movie!
Returning to that script, it’s filled with enough holes to sink a ship (now that’s a funny ship metaphor). The entire plot is based on lies that make little sense other than to have a third act climax where Garret discovers Theresa has lied to him. Of course, it’s not understood exactly why she lied in the first place – she says she wants to photograph the house, but she admits she works for a paper, go figure – and then has a monologue about finding the “right time” to tell him; mind you, we all see how bad it is that she’s lied for so long. On the flipside, Garret is obviously not over his wife, right down to creating a shrine to her memory, yet the minute he believes he’s lost Theresa he dumps all his wife’s crap! Yes ladies, a man shows he truly loves you when he acknowledges there were never any past women before you. Your man have a past relationship, ex-wife? The only way for him to prove his love is to dump any and all items belonging to her and acknowledge that she not longer exists. In that sense, is he truly in love with Theresa or simply unable to be alone? The movie never states, and hopes that your blissful ignorance will move past it all. I will say that we don’t see the infamous “my wife died of cancer” trope that Sparks uses ad nauseum; then again, the script says that pregnancy killed Garret’s wife so no babies’ ladies.
The acting is as wooden as the characters are written. Robin Wright’s done way better, but because Theresa’s only characteristics are that she writes and has a son, there’s nothing for Wright to do but look pretty and flirty. She works with what’s on the page but that’s it. Costner is just dull as can be and exhibits zero chemistry with Wright or the boat that’s supposed to be his other wife. He’s the manly woodcarver, but he acts about boats the way he acts about ordering pancakes; flatly. I do appreciate that Theresa isn’t a young girl and is a dedicated career woman, but that’s because she’s played by a grown woman.
Overall, the Sparks formula hasn’t been honed yet but that doesn’t help Message in a Bottle. The story makes little sense, the acting is boring, and the script just wants you to find women-as-boats and unstable characters to be endearing (Garret definitely needs therapy yet that’s never mentioned). Right now, it’s the worst of the worst but we’re just getting started.
The Good: I like Robin Wright.
The Bad: The story, the romance.
The Ugly: What is the damn appeal in comparing boats to women?
NEXT WEEK: We jump all the way to 2004 with legendary Sparks novel, The Notebook!