Nicholas Sparks's first published novel, The Notebook, was introduced to the world in 1996, when the author was 30, and it very quickly became a bestseller; but though it was eventually turned into a reasonably successful and loved-by-some movie, it was not the first of his works to be filmed (nor the second, but let's not jump ahead). It was the writer's sophomoric effort from 1998, Message in a Bottle, that introduced movie audiences to that Nicholas Sparks magic around Valentine's Day 1999, in a movie starring and produced by Kevin Costner. At this point, we must do a bit of work, and roll our minds back all the way to the last century, for while Sparks has spent the intervening years becoming quite a literary force, creating a whole damn empire on the tears of middle-aged women, and the films taken from his books have become a cottage industry notable more for its durability than its excessive financial success, maybe, but still well-known enough that he has his very own cinematic knock-offs, in 1999, the titanic success of the Sparks brand name was hardly a fait accompli; and while I think that I am not alone in finding Sparks's rousing success in the 2000s very much a part of the conservative cultural moment that gripped the United States for most of that decade, Message in a Bottle is unmistakably and resolutely of the 1990s. In fact, while I do not precisely recall the way it was handled back in the day, it's fairly obviously an attempt to cash in on the glow that was still just barely emanating from 1995's The Bridges of Madison County, especially since some of the most prominent changes made to the novel in Gerald Di Pego's screenplay serve to bring the material more in line with the middle-aged romance of Bridges, rather than the "just out of young adulthood" setting of Sparks's original.

Message in a Bottle opens with, as you'd guess, a message in a bottle; one found by Chicago Tribune researcher Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright, still in her "Robin Wright Penn" days), a single mother who has just finally stopped being bitter about her divorce. Which makes it perfect timing that the bottle contains a romantic letter written from "G" to "Catherine", so rich and passionate in its description of the author's feeling of love and loss and wish that all heaven and earth would re-arrange themselves to bring Catherine back to him, that no woman can hear even a short passage of the letter without collapsing into orgasms. I'm exaggerating, of course; I have just described an entertaining movie, and Message in a Bottle goes pretty damn far out of its way not to be that. Theresa's editor, Charlie Toschi (Robbie Coltrane) publishes the text of the letter one the front page of of the Chicago Tribune, and the deluge of enthusiastic mail the next day includes a letter that includes a second message fished out of a bottle, addressed to Catherine, and this is the point where Theresa, egged on by her swoony co-worker Lina (Illeana Douglas), decides to follow the bread crumb trail all the way back to North Carolina, where Garret Blake (Costner) repairs old ships and mourns his dead wife and goes sailing to be misty-eyed.

To the expectation of everyone, Theresa and Garret fall desperately in love literally overnight, but the lingering tragedy of Catherine's demise by illness has left Garret unable to do much other than feel guilty about finding love again, and this scenario plays out for a good hour, until he, visiting Chicago, finds the letters, and realises that Theresa knew exactly who he was before their meet-cute, and becomes angry. So angry, in fact, that he starts loving his dead wife more than his living girlfriend again, and this is what ultimately pulls the two of them apart, until Tragedy Strikes (Tragedy always Strikes in Nicholas Sparks's world; it is one of the only concrete things I knew about him before picking up the 342 soggy pages of Message in a Bottle).

The first thing I must address is this: there's not all that much of Sparks's Message in a Bottle left in Di Pego's script, and though the author makes a big point of effusively thanking producer Denise Di Novi for her fine work in shepherding no fewer than four of his books to the screen, it's pretty much incontestably the case that each and every single change makes the story worse. Some of the changes are minor as hell: in the book, Theresa lives and works in Boston, and her son's name is Kevin, where here it's Jason. Some look minor, but aren't: Theresa being a researcher and not a featured columnist pretty much squashes the entire third-act complication where her burgeoning career is the most significant reason she doesn't want to leave Boston, forcing Di Pego to invent another, much feebler reason to break up the couple; or the tiny detail that Garret's letters are typed here, and handwritten in the book, a pointless change that costs a huge amount of emotional capital. And there are plenty of changes that are absolutely terrible in every way, like the way that Catherine now has a family of angry, violent relatives who bring along with them a subplot that serves exactly no purpose. This is a mere tasting menu of the revisions and re-workings done to the book; the film is staggeringly heavy with such revisions, and they're all bad. I can't believe that I'm obliged to come to the defense of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but there you have it: the book is tedious, but the movie is rancid.

I didn't mention the biggest difference: in the book, Theresa is 36, but looks younger, and that fits Wright in 1999; Garret is 32, but looks older, and... well, no two ways about it, Costner looks older than 32. So it fits, in the most withered, literal sense. It's entirely possible that, in 1999, and post-Bridges, Costner's interest in the project is the chief reason that Message in a Bottle was ever filmed, but this does not make it any better that he played the character. I will not call him the thing that ruins the film, for there are many things all working to ruin the film, but surely, Costner is the most obvious problem, obvious enough to swing a Razzie nomination for his work. Even in his absolute tip-top best work, there is always a very provisional feeling to Costner's acting ability, like he might snap at any second and start smirking that smirk of his, and it's taking absolutely every inch of his attention to keep it down. Message in a Bottle is an unfortunate fit for the actor, in that it encourages all of the very worst things that he does - sullen brooding; overbearing, even bullying brooding; and relying exclusively on his physical attractiveness to give his character anything resembling an appealing characteristic. Since this is exactly what Garret requires as a character, this means that Costner has a free pass to be as fuckawful lazy as he can possibly be, and the result is one of the most smugly alienating romantic lead performances that I can quickly call to mind: for it's not just flat and uncharismatic, it's pointedly obnoxious.

It's not immediately apparent that Costner is so wretched, because he doesn't exactly stand out: Wright, capable of being a fetching, flexible actress, latches onto everything bland and washed-out in Theresa, and the script itself is so hobbled with dialogues that don't reveal much other than that the screenwriter believes these two character should be fucking, that it would take genuinely great, and not merely passable performances to salvage it, let alone the mildewy acting on display here. There is one bright, blinding spot of excellence: Paul Newman, who must have pissed his agent off real bad, as Garret's father. It's not that Newman is trying to steal the movie away from anyone, he just can't help himself, and there comes a point where the actor and his director, Luis Mandoki (a nobody whose work chiefly consists of not allowing the tripod to fall down), realise at a certain point that the best thing to do is just run with the spiky, angry old man routine, and if that absolutely destroys our ability to pay attention to Costner, so be it; and that point comes about 30 seconds into Newman's first scene, which is unfortunately before we've even seen Costner.

The only real point of any particular accomplishment besides Newman's performance is Caleb Deschanel's cinematography, which is indulgent to a horrifying degree, and tends to make the Maine shooting locations look even more like Maine and less like North Carolina; but it's unabashedly beautiful (I can't swear that I've ever seen such a pretty image of the Chicago skyline as Deschanel, or a second unit DP, perhaps, give us during one gorgeous sunset), and this is a movie where that's enough to hold our attention. It reminds me, in fact, of the cinematographer equivalent of the violently middlebrow oil paintings of Thomas Kinkade, and since Sparks is effectively the prose equivalent of Kincade, Deschanel's work is thus the most authentic element of the whole entire picture.

It's not a hopeless movie - if nothing else, it clips by far faster than a romantic melodrama with a ludicrous 132-minute running time ought to do - but there's really not very much about it to like, not even in the shameless way that the book, for all its tattered clichΓ©s, has the goods as a heart-wrenching piece of emotional pornography. Naturally, everything that works even on that level has been removed in the adaptation (the matter of a tragic boat ride late in the narrative is handled so vastly better in the book that it no longer feels like the same plot point), and Message in a Bottle ends up being even worse than it should have been; a dismal way to start a brand name, but it has the admirable merit of leaving no place to go but up.