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A rare example of big-budget filmmaking as personal catharsis, Moonlight Mile may be the most liberating blockbuster this year—if not always for viewers then at least for writer-director Brad Silberling. Revisiting the aftermath of the 1989 murder of his fiancée, Silberling’s sporadically convincing portrait depicts a would-be family bonded by forestalled grief.
In a 1970s New England town, Ben Floss (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife, JoJo (Susan Sarandon), cope with the recent killing of their daughter, Diana. Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), to whom Diana was engaged, lives in their home, and the trio carry on as if their pre-tragedy plans were unchanged. They also do their best to ignore the fissures revealed by Diana’s absence, and Joe struggles with the knowledge that he and she were less than blissfully matched. To complicate matters, Joe falls for perky bartender Bertie (Ellen Pompeo).
The similarities to last year’s In the Bedroom are notable, and Moonlight could score with audiences frustrated by that film’s refusal to keep things tidy. Tidiness is Silberling’s goal, and his reliance on homiletic whimsy (in Joe and JoJo’s heart-to-hearts) and romantic anodyne (the uninspired love-conquers-all nature of Joe and Bertie’s pairing) threatens to turn the movie into easy-to-swallow mush. Scenery shredders like Sarandon and Holly Hunter don’t help, although, in a performance pitched somewhere between Benjamin Braddock and Willy Loman, Hoffman is uncharacteristically warm and self-deprecating. The real prize here is Gyllenhaal, an island of understated intelligence and subtle emotion amid the showiness. All the shell-shocked wryness, irredeemable remorse, and unaccountable will to survive that the movie attempts to embody are realized in Gyllenhaal, and the actor makes it possible to root for Moonlight Mile despite its flaws.
Former ER hunk Eriq La Salle’s feature directorial debut, Crazy as Hell, is an uneasy mélange of occult thriller and insane-asylum-as-social-microcosm parable: Think Rosemary’s Baby Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While its underdeveloped ideas about race and ambition almost overcome such hand-me-down tropes, the film is derailed by a familiar “surprise” ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan blush. Or sue.
Shrink Ty Adams (Michael Beach) brings his radical treatment methods (which consist mainly of getting bitch-slapped by patients) to a Gothic Southern California psychiatric hospital after suffering a personal tragedy. La Salle turns up as a foppish patient named Satan who delights in antagonizing the arrogant do-gooder Adams. The doc’s troubled backstory emerges in these exchanges, and before you can say, “I see damned people,” Adams is punished for sins he refuses even to acknowledge.
La Salle’s ER chops show in Crazy‘s fluid camerawork and amiable performances, to say nothing of its ratio of quiet exposition to kinetic action. The film expends so much energy dropping transparent hints about the true nature of the goings-on, however, that it fritters away any redeeming suspense. An allegory concerning the chronically mixed signals African American professionals get about overachieving could be intriguing, but the supernatural trappings only obscure the message.
Like his popular 1998 debut, Smoke Signals, Chris Eyre’s follow-up, Skins, is a humorless slice of family melodrama that functions as cut-rate ethnography. Rudy (Eric Schweig), a cop on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, works hard to keep his estranged alcoholic brother, Mogie (Graham Greene), out of trouble. At night, Rudy patrols the rez vigilante-style, meting out harsh justice to various exploiters of his beloved Oglala Sioux.
As social exposé, Skins has its heart in the right place, but that’s not much to hang a soap opera on. No matter how admirably Jennifer D. Lyne’s screenplay avoids clichés (there are no impossibly positive role models to counterbalance the unrepentant Mogie, for instance), Eyre is too careless a director to make the most of the subtleties. Key scenes are underlit, ambient sounds are mistimed, and the cast is given free range to over-emote (an impressive Greene resists the urge). Good intentions or not, ineptitude and cloying sentimentality don’t do anybody any favors.