A romantic mystery in a bottle

Rebounding from 'Postman,' doe-eyed Kevin Costner delivers

Kevin Costner hasn't exactly been on a roll since "The Postman" became the most embarrassing flop of the late '90s, but you'd never know it from "Message in a Bottle," his new picture.

The screenplay establishes his character as the most warmhearted, sympathetic, and desirable man on the planet, making us long for the moment when he'll show up on screen. Then it delays his entrance, tantalizing us with a surprising number of Costnerless scenes. When he finally does arrive, his fans will be ready to swoon and even skeptics may feel a tingle or two at the payoff.

This is Hollywood at its most shamelessly manipulative, but hey, it's the sort of trick that's been selling tickets for as long as movie stars have existed. Does it still work its magic? Box-office returns will tell, but odds are that Costner's slump is a thing of the past.

The story begins when a woman named Theresa, still smarting from a failed marriage, discovers a bottle washed ashore on a beach that's as lonely as she is. It contains a letter written by a forlorn lover to a woman who's vanished from his life. Theresa shares this with friends at the Chicago newspaper where she works. Another message surfaces, then a third, seemingly written by the same romantic hand.

Tracking down the author to the North Carolina shore, she finds a man whose experience of life and love has been as disappointing as her own. They fall for each other, but it's a hesitant relationship that won't be able to blossom as long as memories retain their grip.

Costner can play this sort of wistful hero in his sleep (and has, on occasion), so it's no surprise that his doe-eyed performance is one of the movie's most dependable assets. Robin Wright Penn also makes a fetching impression, and Paul Newman almost steals the show as the hero's crusty dad.

The producers surround this trio with oodles of scenery gorgeously filmed by Caleb Deschanel; and Luis Mandoki directs with every sentimental stop pulled completely out. Moviegoers looking for a good, long cry (at well over two tearful hours) need search no further.

*Rated PG-13; contains adult situations and vulgar language.

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