This week we welcome new re-viewer (and potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Hire) Nisi Baier with her look back at Brad Seiberling’s Moonlight Mile, a movie about music, memories, and sensitive loner boys who all look alike.
Written and Directed by Brad Silberling
Between the much-anticipated end of my high school days in 2002 and after the completion of my first year at the University of San Francisco in 2004, most of the movies I managed to see were either the bro comedies my friends watched or some visual, surreal films that I thought would make me seem cultured. So Moonlight Mile, a quiet and thoughtful drama, didn’t exactly fall on my radar when it came to theaters. I thought it was cool that someone named a film after my favorite Rolling Stones song, but that was about it.
So, truth be told, I saw Moonlight Mile more like eight years ago. At the time of rental it was still on the new releases wall at the video store, so that has to count for something. I felt compelled to rent the movie after having a study session epiphany that made me wonder for years if I was capable of synesthesia. I’d been assigned James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead” by a professor who very adamantly claimed that it was the best short story in existence. She rarely gave her personal opinion, so I figured I was in for a treat and decided to do more than my usual glance over. When I am in serious reading mode, I need a lack of visual stimulation and some kind of background music. I built a pillow/blanket fort in my single dorm room (the only perk of being an RA) and pressed the shuffle button on this newfangled device called an iPod that I dropped half a paycheck on. As I neared the end of the story, “Moonlight Mile” came on my iPod. My line of thinking sounded like some fancy society lady from Joyce’s world “oh, what a pretty song to compliment such lovely prose!” But as the writing became more reflective and poignant, the song followed suit. As the main character cried and realized that his marriage was more companionate than passionate, the song built up to its climax. The last paragraph of “The Dead,” which describes the protagonist looking out a window to watch the snow fall around him and throughout Ireland, is so lyrically written that it provided silent vocals for the last instrumental minute of “Moonlight Mile.” The delicate piano chords felt like those falling snowflakes, the mournful guitar sounded like loss and grief and the audio embodiment of those moments in time that prose tries so desperately to capture.
It was an intense moment.
The combination of that song and that story passage was a spiritual experience for me. I was so elated to be grounded in such a harmonious moment where everything seemed so interconnected, so omniscient. It made me wonder how those stoners must have felt when they synced up “Dark Side of the Moon” with The Wizard of Oz. Two days after reading “The Dead,” I rented Moonlight Mile in the hopes that somebody else found the song to be transcendent.
Moonlight Mile begins three days after the violent and senseless murder of Diana, the only child of Ben and Jojo Floss (Played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon) and the fiancée of Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film takes place in 1973, in a small town that seems sparsely populated because many of the young male residents are fighting in Vietnam. Sometimes this is shown by the lack of leaves on the trees or the empty barstools and diner seats at main street establishments. Diana’s funeral is a somber affair, put on more for the benefit of those family friends who suffer from mild to severe cases of word diarrhea that so many of us get when trying to comfort the inconsolable.
It is difficult to tell if Joe is normally a quiet and shy twenty-something or if he’s just been rendered meek due to the awkward circumstances. At the early mourning stage, it makes pragmatic sense for him to stay with his would-be in-laws in order to have the funeral, cancel his wedding arrangements, and be present for the criminal trial against Diana’s murderer. However, shortly after logistics are managed it becomes obvious that Joe is being groomed as a replacement child, particularly by Ben. Ben’s grief is initially channeled into productivity and distraction; he looks to expand his commercial real estate business and brings Joe in as a partner. Joe goes along with these plans, perhaps because of his aforementioned meekness but probably because he has not yet figured out what he wants to do with his life. The Flosses use Joe’s complacency and politeness as permission to project their feelings about their daughter onto him and this makes their relationship stifling, as does staying cooped up in his dead fiancée’s room.
One of the important items on Joe’s to do list is to retrieve the wedding invitations that were about to be sent out. At the small and empty post office, Joe’s dog gets attacked by the cat of Bertie Knox (played by Ellen Pompeo) and this groan-worthy romantic comedy scene begins a love story between the two characters that I found to be unrealistically and rapidly intimate and unnecessary to the plot of the film.
If she didn’t have actual tragedy in her life in the form of a missing boyfriend, Bertie would be a full-fledged Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She overshares about bodily functions, reads other people’s mail, convinces Joe to stomp around with her in a mail crate, crushing letters with their feet like wine grapes as they search for the invitations. I’m sure writer and director Brad Silberling’s intentions were good with Bertie (Look, an independent and quirky ‘70s woman with alluring eyes! How could he not fall for that?) but like Joe, she is used as a blank slate and a catalyst to cause the others to move on.
I felt like the mourning process in itself would have been enough to keep the plot going without a romantic interest causing everybody to come to terms with their issues. As Ben realizes that Joe is ambivalent about becoming his new son and business partner, he realizes that he can’t continue to proceed with his life as if nothing happened. Unlike her husband, Jojo felt her grief as it came. While this is a more healthy approach, she teeters dangerously close to using this grief as an excuse to stop her hobby/career in writing and indulge in past vices like smoking and drinking. After the trial, Jojo finds a constructive way to cope by getting back to the ole typewriter and making a list of memories and traits that highlight the imperfect human-ness of her daughter. These actions have little to do with their almost-son-in-law having a new romantic interest but somehow their knowledge of Bertie and Joe’s romance gives them the kick in the ass that they need.
As Joe admits to himself and others that he and Diana’s romantic relationship was not meant to be and that their wedding was actually going to be called off, we realize that he is not staying with the Flosses out of loyalty or passivity but because of guilt. Admitting this and realizing that it doesn’t diminish his sadness or invalidate the memories he has of his former fiancée is what allows him to be a more active agent in his life. Being aware of the faults in our relationships with the deceased is a difficult and important thing to come to terms with and very rarely does falling in love with somebody else help us get there.
Moonlight Mile is not the kind of movie one would buy on DVD for repeated viewings, but it is a story worth telling and hearing at least once. Diana’s life was not preserved through the justice system’s prosecution of her killer. And keeping her room just as she left it didn’t bring anybody closure. Nor did it do her justice to be remembered through her role as daughter and fiancée and friend. In the end, it was the shared moments that Diana had with others and, presumably, the private moments she had with herself that contributed to her legacy. I had one of those moments reading Joyce and listening to “Moonlight Mile,” Bertie the Manic Pixie Dream Girl had a similar moment when Joe played that same song, her song, on the jukebox at a bar. The fleeting nature of those moments highlight what we cherish about life and remind us what is so fearful about death.
Although I initially wanted to compare Joe to Dustin Hoffman’s infamous portrayal of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (after all, Susan Sarandon is pretty milfy), I think his ambivalence and quarter-life crisis is more in tune with Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobbler and his immortal words about a future career, “I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”
This was the first time I saw Jake Gyllenhaal in a movie and I remember thinking Goddammit, I have a hard enough time telling Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood apart, now we have to add another sensitive boyish loner to the mix.
This film could have taken place at any other modern time. The dynamic of the story is timeless and, sadly, so is the subplot about a small town being taken over by big business developers. Just substitute Vietnam for Afghanistan and Iraq and update the cars and it could easily have taken place ten years ago, or now. They don’t even have to change the kick ass 70’s soundtrack because a lot of those songs still get played on jukeboxes.
I wrote the following note to myself, which seemed a little too snarky to put in the actual review:Movie ends with everybody clearing out their memory-soggy abodes in preparation for the great emotional garage sale known as “moving on.”
They play like 30 seconds of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain,” another song that I find insanely poignant! So, if the person responsible for the soundtrack somehow reads this, please know that I would be your Manic Pixie Dream Girl any ole day of the week. We obviously think alike…