Crime-Family Man

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, stuffing them into bottles and dropping 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? Could you go for anyone who comes up with coinages such as "the blue Atlantic mystery" and "you were my true north?"

Theresa does. From the offices of the Chicago Tribune (refashioned on an LA 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 40-foot schooner. He also has a nice supply of good red Burgundy laid in at his weather-beaten dream of a beach house. And the little fishing village where he lives, as if you didn't know, is postcard-perfect, swathed in gauzy rainbows and the twinkle of lighthouses.

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 -- a sailboat encased in red fog, a dewy-eyed girl clasping a bouquet. 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 (notably her brother, played by John Savage) over ownership of the canvases. Only in the end does he give them up, along with his grief.

"You choose," Dad tells son as he finally faces up to 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.

Opens Feb. 12.
-- Bill Gallo

Co-written and directed by Ali Nasser

Immediately following the credits of The Milky Way (Shvil Hahalav), titles set the stage: "1964, an Arab village in the Galilee in the last year of military rule. During the 1948 war, many of the villagers were killed or fled, leaving behind their relatives." Near the film's conclusion, after one more needless, tragic death, a character comments philosophically, "God protect us. Those who know keep silent, and those who don't know blame it on the Milky Way." Spanning the continuum of these two extremes -- the paralyzing memory of deliberate, brutal massacre vs. the dismissive rationalization of cosmic inevitability -- beleaguered villagers struggle to pursue some semblance of healthy social interaction. They won't, can't succeed in their pressurized situation.

Deceptively casual, the first third of The Milky Way meanders, introducing a cross section of residents -- the dedicated teacher, the childish fool, the kind blacksmith, the honorable mediator and his two unruly sons, and several romantic couples. After establishing the personality of this close-knit but wary community, the plot turns serious. Occupying soldiers round up and interrogate the Arab men over forged work permits. Slowly, methodically, simmering tensions build toward a boil, disrupting the tentative tranquility. The feared Israeli governor's troops arrest and beat Ahmad, the innocent teacher with a prison record. A villagers' march and demonstration, internal conflicts, an accidental death, an attempted suicide hanging and the surprise revelation of the real forger propel the narrative to an unexpected, hopeful resolution, convincing without being naive.

Central to one important subplot is Mabruq (Safiel Haddad), the village fool who relies on kindness but endures ridicule. He functions as a litmus test; that is, the way others treat him reveals their true character. Playing with children, grateful for handouts, drinking milk straight from the goat's udder, a traumatized Mabruq also suffers periodic, painful flashbacks to 1948 carnage. Mabruq's friendship with the blacksmith Mahmmud (Mohammed Bakri) sustains him until Mahmmud becomes entangled in trouble.

Almost ethnographic in its presentation, The Milky Way benefits from director/producer/co-writer Ali Nassar's own experiences in occupied territory. His inclusion of carefully observed details presents a snapshot portrait through a serviceable, though never elegant, style. Typically, interaction begins in long shot with a cut in to medium shots followed by retreat to long shots before moving to the next scene. Though functional, this staging does keep us too often and too long at arm's length, detached, perhaps even distracted by the nonchalant artifice. Similarly, editing is often less than fluid, though nonintrusive music subtly and effectively accents events.

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