Had it truly worked, "Moonlight Mile" would have been a very difficult film to watch. It attempts to show a different side of grief; the moments when one must come to terms with all of their feelings and move on. Unfortunately, what "Moonlight Mile" attempts and what it actually becomes are two different things. Unfortunately, an opportunity to create a unique and powerful work is really just another unremarkable, unmemorable tearjerker.
"Moonlight Mile" begins on the day of the funeral of the fiancee of Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal). He is living with the deceased's parents, JoJo and Ben Floss (Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman, respectively). At the funeral reception, Joe and the Flosses are given overwhelming sympathy; but these are not people who want to be pitied, and to them, the whole thing is an annoying formality. After dealing with visitors and other pests, Ben decides it is time to go back to work as a commercial real estate broker, and he wants to take Joe with him. In a reversal from Hoffman's situation in "The Graduate", Ben almost forcefully invites Joe to become a real estate broker with him. Joe isn't too happy about this, but he complies until he can find a place of his own.
The film is fine up until this point. It deals with its complex issues with very little grace (who does?) and an interesting and very welcome sense of humor. All the dialogue runs loops around everything the characters want to say to each other. There seem to be secret longings in each of their eyes that only Ben, with his attempts to bring Joe into real estate, dares to begin to act upon. This lack of communication leads to frustration between Ben and Jojo, who begin to argue frequently, and through the well-played performance of Jake Gyllenhaal, we can tell that something is going on with Joe. When the trial begins (with Holly Hunter as the Flosses' lawyer), one expects for one of the characters to explode, but instead, the tension just continues to build.
It is here, when ideas are starting to be explored and emotions begin to develop, that "Moonlight Mile" drops everything it has going for it. First, a romantic interest is introduced for Joe. You can almost hear the film crashing and burning as Joe exchanges flirty dialogue, shares a kiss, and shares a bed with a newfound love. We have been taken to these places before, and simply because Joe has found a new girlfriend, we know that she will have everything in common with him, and we know they'll split up and get back together. To do this completely ruins the character of Joe Nast, whose mystery and profound silent grievances lose themselves to this mess of a plotline. It is as if he simply stops developing at all; the Joe Nast of the first half of the film simply vanishes into thin air, making way for a generic and soulless shell of a character.
There is also something to be said about the way things unfold with Ben and Jojo that strikes a sour note. They become fuller characters than Joe, but as they reveal their true feelings about their daughter, I was completely unaffected. It was not because of poorly written narratives or poor performances. No, for what it's worth, the performances were excellent. What keeps the audience from feeling anything for the characters is that we know nothing about the one who is lost. In a film such as "In The Bedroom", which deals with practically identical issues, we are very familiar with both the bereaved and the dead, and it is clear to us what a tragedy it occurred. Here, we only begin to know the Flosses' daughter until the very end, and by that time, the film has distanced itself from both its viewers and the reality I was so sure it had locked onto at the start.
"Moonlight Mile" is a flawed and ultimately failed effort to do something rarely seen in fictitious cinema. It seems now that falling to convention has become a temptation for filmmakers that only a few can resist; and unfortunately, moviegoers are going to have to get used to this sad fact. "Moonlight Mile" puts very difficult issues in front of itself, but it does not have the courage to face them without the oft-worn mask of a run-of-the-mill mainstream weepie.