Pale 'Moonlight'

In the opening scenes of "Moonlight Mile," the atmosphere is believable. The acting is sincere and the relationships between the characters aren't telegraphed too quickly, letting you put your own imagination to work.

But by the halfway mark, one question absorbed my attention: What could have induced Dustin Hoffman to get involved with such a dull role in such a dull movie?

He's a top-rank star who can have his pick of roles. Was the script he read completely different from the meandering, unfocused soap opera that has finally reached the screen?

I'll leave it for Hoffman's biographers to explain this mystery someday.

Hoffman plays Ben, a small-town businessman whose daughter is killed when a demented gunman opens fire in a local diner.

Stricken with grief but determined to get through this tragedy, Ben and his wife JoJo (Susan Sarandon) cling to everyday routines and friendships.

They also develop a strong attachment to Joe, the young man (Jake Gyllenhaal) their daughter was engaged to when she died.

He emerges as the story's main character, moving into the home of his prospective in-laws and trying to figure out what his future holds.

Then he meets another woman who starts to capture his heart – and to stir up unresolved feelings about his late fiancée, whose relationship with him was less ideal than everyone believes.

Gyllenhaal is a gifted actor – see his current performance in "The Good Girl" for evidence – and Joe is an engaging character, a well-meaning young man caught between the goals of pleasing needy friends or being true to himself.

If the film had effectively explored his conflicted personality, it might have had real emotional impact.

But this would have reduced Ben to a minor character, and that would have given Hoffman less screen time. So the story wanders between Joe and Ben, preventing either one from developing full psychological depth. Something similar happens to JoJo, whose four-letter words and feisty behavior aren't nearly as endearing as they're supposed to be.

Aside from a few pop songs and fashion details, the '70s time period and small-town location of "Moonlight Mile" are evoked so wanly that nostalgia-seekers will be badly disappointed.

This movie has promising ingredients. But you'll leave wanting much, much more.

• 'Moonlight Mile' is rated PG-13 for vulgarity and violence.

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