Life Among the Un-Dead

The funny thing about the grieving process is that the grieving process can be funny; not exactly South Park funny, to be sure, but there are laughs mixed in with the tears, as we look back on our departed loved ones and deal with the well-intentioned but absurdly awkward condolenscences from friends, family, lovers and even total strangers. In the midst of death, we are in life, and where there is life, there is comedy.

But for some reason, our culture treats grief as a fitting subject for drama only, rarely admitting to the comedy inherent in the ridiculous things we all say and do as we cope with a profound loss. Movies have taught us how we're supposed to feel after a death, but while there are certainly universal qualities to grief, in reality, dealing with loss is an experience we all deal with in our own, uniquely screwed-up ways.

Moonlight Mile is a picture that looks at grief with unique honesty, refusing to bog down in soppy sentimentality or minimize the agonies of grief. The film arrives artfully camouflaged with a professional gloss (and powerhouse cast) that will bring it to the attention of a far-wider audience than it otherwise would have had. But make no mistake, this isn't the kind of tidy, predictable drama that typically rakes in the trophies during Oscar season. Moonlight Mile is as messy, as funny and as sad as life (and death) itself.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon top the bill, but the film's star is Jake Gyllenhaal, a frail-looking, saucer-eyed young actor who was surely separated at birth from Tobey Maguire. Gyllenhaal is Joe, a young man who lost his fiancee in a horribly arbitrary manner; still reeling from the loss, Joe finds himself moving in with his fiancee's parents, the gentle Ben (Hoffman) and the tart-tongued JoJo (Sarandon). Ben clearly hopes he can somehow replace his lost daughter by making Joe into a kind of surrogate son, even installing Joe into a position in the family real-estate business. Joe, for his part, goes along with the whole thing because he really doesn't have any better ideas about what to do.

Joe's living arrangement with his would-be in-laws is exactly the kind of awkward, perplexing, grief-induced weirdness that happens so often in life and so rarely in the movies; real life does not always follow the rising action of our popular fictions, where we rarely see what happens in the days after the funeral, after the mourners are gone and people make their first, fumbly attempts to get on with the business of living.

It is no coincidence that Hoffman's character is named Ben, for Joe's story does bear a certain resemblance to that of Benjamin in The Graduate. But while Hoffman has a couple of great scenes here, this is really a supporting performance, and Hoffman has the grace to step back and let Gyllenhaal take center stage, an opportunity Gyllenhaal makes the most of. Sarandon is impressively nuanced as JoJo, a shrewd woman who attempts to cloak her suffering with irony, but equally high marks must be bestowed upon screen newcomer Ellen Pompeo, who appears as Bertie, a young woman who kindles romantic yearnings in Joe long before Joe—or anybody else—thinks such feelings are appropriate.

Director Brad Silberling loosely based the film on his own experience following the murder of his girlfriend, TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer, at the hands of an obsessed fan in 1989. As a result, Moonlight Mile arrives saturated with tiny, telltale details, the greasy fingerprints of life as it's lived in the long shadow of death.

Moonlight Mile was written and directed by Brad Siberling; and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Ellen Pompeo. Now playing countywide.

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