In Moonlight Mile, Jake Gyllenhaal has a furtive tenderness and the sad eyes of a spaniel. Playing the fiancé of a recently murdered girl, he's too waywardly original a performer to milk us for obvious sympathy. Most of the new young-adult male actors are interchangeable, but Gyllenhaal is one of a kind: Every emotion he shows us is newly minted, every line reading has its own private tempo. He never comes across with a single, quantifiable attitude. Instead, he allows the crazy-making confusions of a character to take over, and this makes him just about the most realistic and comical and disturbing portrayer of youthful angst around. In The Good Girl, his character called himself Holden. It's a great loss that J. D. Salinger has never allowed The Catcher in the Rye to be filmed: Gyllenhaal would have made a dream Holden Caulfield.
He's easily the best thing in Moonlight Mile. Ben Floss (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife, JoJo (Susan Sarandon), play the parents of the murdered girl, who was caught in the line of fire when an enraged husband shot at his wife in an ice-cream parlor in their cozy New England town. Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal) is living with the parents while awaiting the murder trial and trying to figure out what to do with his life. Ben has plans for them to become partners in his languishing commercial-real-estate business, and he and JoJo like having the boy around. Joe genuinely likes the Flosses and thinks, Why not give them what they need?
Moonlight Mile presents a very different take on murder and family grief than, say, In the Bedroom, which understood excruciatingly well how people can be made ragged by sorrow. Written and directed by Brad Silberling and set in 1973, Moonlight Mile is a much glossier and more sentimental achievement; it's about how withstanding sorrow ultimately makes you a better person. The wild card in this material is that, as we discover, Joe had broken off with the daughter, whom he loved most as a friend, a few days before she was killed. He soon falls in love with a local girl, Bertie (Ellen Pompeo, who has a crumpled, Renée Zellweger–ish charm), a postal worker by day who at night tends bar in a joint owned by her boyfriend, who's been MIA in Vietnam for three years. Joe and Bertie, damaged romantics, are made for each other. As you might expect, the jukebox in the bar underscores their reawakening.
Hoffman has appeared in his share of corn over the years, but something in him balks at all the husking he's required to do here. He's playing a soap-operatic cross between a grumpy papa in deep denial over his daughter's death and Willy Loman (whom he once played on Broadway). Silberberg's engineered pathos undercuts Hoffman's sharpest instincts. He's too wily and subversive (and crotchety) an actor to bring off a scene like the bonding ritual here, in which Joe and Ben cough on their big cigars and talk of loss and togetherness.
Sarandon shows some fire in her early scenes as she blithely tosses the grief-counseling books she has received from well-wishers into the fireplace and damns equally the friends who ask about her feelings and those who don't. But JoJo finds out about Joe's broken engagement and his new love, and the truth sets her free. Silberling belabors the obvious for us -- JoJo and Joe have practically the same name. I guess that makes them soul mates. Actually, Silberling belabors just about everything. He wants us to know, over and over again, that family is where you find it, and so is love. It's no wonder he's so fond of jukeboxes, but he forgot to change the record.