For fans of the modern romantic drama film, The Notebook undoubtedly stands as either a nostalgic tearjerker or a clichéd and shudder-inducing box office hit from a bygone era of film. Indeed, the best-known Nicholas Sparks adaptation grossed over $115 million worldwide in 2004 and is the only film adaptation of a Sparks novel to be rated above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. In addition to Noah and Allie, older millennials might also still hold a candle for Landon and Jamie from A Walk to Remember, whose own adaptation predated The Notebook by two years. But no Sparks film is as forgotten or underrated as the very first one: 1999’s Message in a Bottle, starring Kevin Costner and Robin Wright. (Excuse me—Robin Wright Penn.)

To say that any film adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel qualifies as quality cinema in any critical sphere would be largely false. As much as A Walk to Remember or The Notebook might be nostalgic for people now in their twenties and thirties, they don’t hold up as much as one might like. (One was described as “bland and oppressively syrupy,” and the other as “too clumsily manipulative to rise above its melodramatic clichés.”) While the other Sparks adaptations to come would follow a similar formula, Message in a Bottle almost exists in a different realm entirely—one on the precipice of a new millennium while still continually stuck in the age of ‘90s rom-coms.

Message in a Bottle is far from a comedy, but you almost wouldn’t know that from an aesthetical perspective. Theresa Osborne (Wright), a Chicago Tribune reporter who comes across a love letter in a bottle in the sands of Cape Cod, is such a typical ‘90s lovestruck leading lady that, with her curly blonde hair and empathetic smile, she exists heavily in the shadow of Meg Ryan’s Annie Reed or Kathleen Kelly. Garrett Blake (Costner), the widower sending letters to his wife in the great beyond, isn’t so much a Tom Hanks type as he is a sympathetic sufferer, making it easy for the target audience (white women) to fall for his narrative. The proof? Theresa does, and when her colleagues share the story of the unnamed man who continues to send love letters to his deceased wife in their newspaper, her career takes off. All that’s missing is Theresa already being attached to another mediocre white man when she falls in love with Garrett and Message in a Bottle could have easily been written by Nora Ephron.

While Garrett does live on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and dedicates his life to sailboats—you know, as Nicholas Sparks characters do—much of the film’s dramatic action takes place in the urban landscape of Chicago, especially when he comes to visit Theresa and her son only to find his letters in a drawer. Message in a Bottle is not the only Sparks adaptation to feature scenes in a city as opposed to just a dreary, lonely house on a beach prone to storms (Nights in Rodanthe, anyone?), but the emotional nuance of the characters’ conflict, thanks solely to the performances and abilities of Costner and Wright, helps bring together the overused notion of two worlds colliding. A cliché nonetheless, the Ephron-ian tendencies of the characters also help rectify the otherwise bland and predictable script that film critics tore apart at the time. Although Costner was nominated for Worst Actor at the Golden Raspberry Awards for his performance, the unique chemistry that he and Wright shared made Message in a Bottle’s hopeless romantic themes much more compelling. It’s a travesty they have yet to make another film together.

While Wright did enjoy a lucrative film career in the ‘90s, any of her roles that were similar to Theresa in Message in a Bottle were large box office failures, such as Loved alongside William Hurt or She’s So Lovely with John Travolta and ex-husband Sean Penn. Indeed, Wright is gladly remembered in our current pop culture conscience for The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump and her captivating turn on Netflix’s House of Cards, but rarely as an adult romantic lead or love interest—which is a shame, because while she may lack the versatile charm of a Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, her performance abilities are surely on the same level. Far from a Meg Ryan type (who would later essentially give up on film) while also not a Gwyneth Paltrow or Kate Winslet, Wright has always represented a more grown-up in-between version of a female lead. Her only comparable peer would probably be that of Diane Lane (even though it’s also hard to imagine her in films like Unfaithful or Under the Tuscan Sun), so it was satisfyingly apropos when they would later appear together on House of Cards.

Although it may exist in a realm that it somewhat foreign to other Sparks adaptations, Message in a Bottle does also unfortunately fall prey to much of the contrived plot points home to any number of these films (spoiler alert—or not, it’s been 22 years—he tragically dies in the end). It’s not a perfect film, and frankly no Sparks adaptation is, but unlike later features that would star desirable hunks like Josh Duhamel or James Marsden, Message in a Bottle feels like it’s about adults, for adults: the prettiness of the actors is not supposed to distract us from the dreadful script. But even if it did, it’s the chemistry and nuance the lead actors share that still make the film a comforting viewing experience over two decades later.

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