An occasionally surreal meditation on coping with loss, and a love story with a dark side the size of Montana. However you categorize writer/director Brad Silberling's wryly funny picture, it's clear that he's come a long way since the child-friendly haunts of CASPER (1995). Set in New England in the early '70s, the film revolves around young Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), who finds himself lingering in his fiancée's family home after her apparently random murder, grieving along with her parents, likeable but feckless real-estate salesman Ben Floss (Dustin Hoffman) and his artsy, plainspoken soulmate, JoJo (Susan Sarandon). Joe and the family are also involved with the local district attorney (Holly Hunter), who's attempting to put the killer away on their behalf. Before much progress is made, however, Joe has a meet-cute with the town's part-time postmaster, Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), and against his better judgment starts to fall for her. Obviously, the potential for guilt on Joe's part is enormous, and in a jolting second act plot turn we learn that Joe is actually carrying even more than the audience suspects; suffice it to say that Joe's earlier relationship was not as idyllic as advertised. The rest of the film dissects the different ways each of the characters deals with their individual ghosts, underscored by a smart selection of less-than-familiar period music, including the Rolling Stones' gorgeous title song. Silberling, who lost his girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer (of TV's My Sister Sam), to a stalker's bullet in 1989, also finds time for both some creepy and disturbing dream sequences illustrating Joe's inner turmoil and a genuinely funny subplot involving one of Ben's potential business partners (Dabney Coleman). There's no denying that, by virtue of the subject matter, it's all a bit of a downer — even though it ends happily. But Silberling's script is a feast of cornucopian proportions for the talented cast, and the acting is, without exception, world class. There are wonderfully subtle ironies throughout, not the least of which is that Joe's character is written (and acted by the appealingly hangdog Gyllenhaal) as a sly homage to Benjamin Braddock, the iconic character Hoffman played in THE GRADUATE, while Coleman recalls the well-meaning dolt who extols the wonders of plastic.
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