From the unsettling, pretty music to the tragic-sounding voice-over beginning, you might assume that "Moonlight Mile" is yet another cynical, dark comic satire, akin to the many wannabes that followed the Oscar-winning "American Beauty."

Thankfully, this comedy-drama is something a whole lot better than that, a character-driven, surprisingly thoughtful film, which, in spite of its contrivances, somehow feels more real and heartfelt than all the pre-fab, shallow, heartless films Hollywood has been producing. (It's also funnier than you might expect.)

Writer/director Brad Silberling has loosely based the story on his own experiences, when his girlfriend, television actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was slain by a stalker. And he has gathered together a first-rate cast — one that could make even the sketchiest material watchable.

In this instance, it makes what would already be a good little film that much better. And that includes up-and-coming actor Jake Gyllenhaal ("October Sky," "The Good Girl"), who stars as Joe Nast, a twentysomething whose fiance was slain just days before their wedding.

Joe arrives in this small, unnamed New England community, circa the early '70s, for the funeral, and is staying with the victim's parents, his would-be in-laws Ben and JoJo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon).

Ben and JoJo are pressuring Joe to stay in town — Ben wants him to help with his real-estate business, and novelist JoJo is looking for inspiration to help her get over a serious case of writer's block.

At the same time, Joe has met someone new — Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), the town's postmaster and, by night, a bartender. Joe begins to feel quite comfortable with her, but, naturally, tries to keep it from the Flosses. But he has another, bigger secret he's hiding, as well.

Though his other films — "City of Angels" and "Casper" — have been too manipulative and muddled, Silberling strikes the right balance here, mixing low-key, character-based humor and absorbing drama (the payoffs to nearly every one of the character arcs are perfectly appropriate and well-earned).

And of course, the top-notch cast is terrific. Gyllenhaal is very believable as the film's conflicted central character, Hoffman is nicely restrained, and newcomer Pompeo is extremely appealing. But the standout might be Sarandon, whose winning performance as the warm, wise JoJo should earn her an Academy Award nomination.

"Moonlight Mile" is rated PG-13 for occasional use of strong, sexually related profanity (including a couple uses of the so-called, "R-rated" curse word) and crude sexual slang terms, brief violence and a brief sex scene. Running time: 112 minutes.


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