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Get out your hankies and weep for the heart-tugging disaster Message in a Bottle.

Short of nuclear holocaust, a major sale at Kmart, or a confirmed Clint Eastwood sighting back in rural Iowa, there's probably no way to keep the movie version of Message in a Bottle from overwhelming the tender emotions of the hearts-and-flowers crowd. After all, this relentless assault on the tear ducts features 1) Kevin Costner as a manly (but sensitive) North Carolina boat builder who can't let go of his dead wife, 2) Robin Wright Penn as the wary (but sensitive) Chicago newspaperwoman who falls in love with him anyway, and 3) Paul Newman as the grieving widower's crusty (but sensitive) father.

Don't plunk down your seven bucks expecting to see Casablanca or The English Patient. Instead, Message in a Bottle is a standard two-hanky weeper, photographed (by Caleb Deschanel) as softly and sweetly as a TV spot for a feminine hygiene product and directed (by Luis Mandoki) with the skill of an evangelist herding rubes into the tent. Significantly, Warner Brothers is releasing the movie before Nicholas Sparks's syrupy bestseller, from which the film descends, has cooled off. A movie version with Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn entwined on a beach bathed in the pink-and-mauve glow of sunset will likely just enhance the book's sales. He's as wooden as ever, and she's all big-eyed wonder. But they look awfully nice together. Certainly, director Mandoki knows this thrumming-on-the-heartstrings business better than most. He previously wrapped romance around cerebral palsy in Gaby, A True Story (1987) and infused alcoholism with marital devotion in When a Man Loves a Woman (1994).

But now for a closer look at this Tender, Poignant, Beautiful, Sensitive thing. Ask yourself: If you were a stoic sailboat builder (romantic trade, no?) named Garret Blake (Costner), and your beloved painter wife (another romantic trade, no?) died of an unspecified illness, would you start typing mawkish "Dear Catherine" letters to her, stuff them into bottles, and drop them into the heaving deep? And if you were a divorced single mom named Theresa Osborne (Wright Penn) and you found one of the note-stuffed bottles in the sand on Cape Cod, would you fall, sight unseen, for the guy who wrote them?

Theresa does. From the offices of the Chicago Tribune (refashioned on an L.A. soundstage), she traipses off to the Outer Banks of North Carolina (shot on the beaches of Maine) in search of a romantic mystery. She finds romance instead. Shy, strapping Garret, a handsome salt of few words, is ruggedly done up in turtlenecks, slickers, and cargo pants from the L.L. Bean catalog. When not pining for dead Catherine, he works up a glamorous sweat restoring a graceful forty-foot schooner. He also has a nice supply of good red Burgundy laid in at his weather-beaten dream of a beach house. What more could a lonely newspaper researcher from Chicago ask for? How about the prospect of Paul Newman--handsome face seamed with wisdom now, peering out from under the brim of a slouch hat--as your future father-in-law?

Too bad things don't quite work out. When he's not playing tentative kissy-face with Theresa, poor Garret wanders around in a funk. He stares lovingly at Catherine's paintings. Everybody in the movie keeps talking about what masterpieces these are, but don't be surprised that they look like leftovers from a flea market. If Garret had any sense, he'd stick them in wine bottles and dump them in the bay. Instead, he conducts a distracting feud with Catherine's family over ownership of the canvases.

"You choose," Dad tells son of his romantic quandary. "Yesterday or tomorrow. Pick one and stick with it. And I'll shut up."

Actually, that's the best news we get in this entire picture. Before a bogus final tragedy strikes the principals, the prospect that Newman, one of our most distinguished actors, can finally recede from this saccharine and manipulative bowl of mush is most welcome.

Message in a Bottle.
Directed by Luis Mandoki. Written by Gerald DiPego, from a novel by Nicholas Sparks. Starring Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn, and Paul Newman.

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