Moonlight Mile

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You need only observe the brief moment when a dog vomits during a wake to understand that “Moonlight Mile,” while preoccupied with the aftermath of a tragic death, is not going to be unreasonably melancholy.

This is especially reassuring when one sees it was written and directed by Brad Silberling, whose “City of Angels” (1998) was more brooding and somber than many viewers could handle.

Silberling has based this film on his own experience with the parents of actress Rebecca Shaeffer, whom he was dating when she was killed in 1989. The film is touching and thoughtful, but also extremely funny, which in itself is one of the film’s points: Life can be funny, even when you are grieving.

Prior to the film’s beginning, circa 1970, a young woman named Diana has died. She was shot by a madman who entered a diner to kill his waitress wife; Diana, unfortunately, was sitting in his line of fire.

She has left behind a fiancé, Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had moved to her Cape Cod home to prepare for their life together. He’s been staying with her parents, Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and JoJo (Susan Sarandon), and now the stay is to last indefinitely. If Joe has parents of his own, they are never mentioned. He had plans to become a partner in Ben’s small commercial real estate business, and those plans continue now because … well, because Joe can’t think of anything better to do.

(When it comes to films whose post-adolescent protagonists are uncertain about the future, “The Graduate” is the prototype. Note that “The Graduate” starred Dustin Hoffman as a character named Ben, just as “Moonlight Mile” has a supporting character played by Dustin Hoffman and named Ben.)

Ben and JoJo grieve without really grieving. Ben throws himself into his work — a cliché among grieving movie characters, perhaps, but I admire Dustin Hoffman for finding new life in it. And JoJo, a blunt, honest writer, finds release by making sarcastic comments about the friends who came to the funeral, and also by throwing “helpful” books with titles like “These Things Happen” and “Grieving for Grownups” into the fireplace.

Joe meets a local mail carrier named Bertie (a feisty Ellen Pompeo) who has lost someone, too. By night, Bertie helps run a bar that sits on the block of Main Street that Joe, Ben and an aging developer named Mulcahey (Dabney Coleman) want to take over.

Joe’s dilemma over whether to help his would-be father-in-law put the bar out of business is a disappointingly conventional plot device for a film that is otherwise so fresh. Ditto a courtroom scene near the end: Beware of courtroom scenes in movies that are not, overall, court-centered movies. It’s a screenwriter’s lazy way of forcing his characters to say what’s on their minds, under oath, in a neat, tidy little speech.

But anyway. Twenty-two-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal continues to establish himself as one of his generation’s best actors with his heartbreakingly sympathetic performance as Joe. The suddenness with which he can go from passivity to great emotion is startling; it perfectly mirrors the real-life roller coaster of the grieving process. And the manner in which he plays a darkly comic scene with Mulcahey’s family is nothing short of genius.

As JoJo, Susan Sarandon is worthy of an Oscar nomination. What first appears to be a cynical defense mechanism slowly reveals itself to be, simply, the way she is. She is splendidly vulnerable, as is Hoffman, who is such a brilliant, diverse actor that things like this look easy when he does them.

It is also nice to see Dabney Coleman as a wannabe-ruthless, it’s-a-new-world land developer. (“Mom and Pop have gone to sleep with the gas on,” he says of old-fashioned markets and shops. “They’re history.”) Holly Hunter is good in a few scenes as Ben and JoJo’s sympathetic, feisty attorney.

Silberling has found that the most effective way to help an audience feel something is not to beat them over the head with it. At its heart, this is every bit as melancholy and sad as its subject matter suggests, but Silberling’s style allows for humor and hope, joy and optimism. In the end, we feel we’ve been on the same search for meaning that Joe has, and that the journey has enriched us the way it has him.

A- (1 hr., 56 min.; PG-13, some profanity, including three F-bombs.)

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