Message in a Bottle, true to its title, is the one about the gorgeous Chicago Tribune researcher, who, recouping from a nasty divorce, stumbles across a blue bottle containing a love letter-the sensitive outpourings of a consciousness-raised 'G' for his 'Catherine.' The heart of this researcher, Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn), melts over musings like 'You came into my dream last night with that smile that always held me like a lover, rocked me like a child.' She must have this man! So, with the well-practiced skills of an investigative reporter, she traces the typewriting, tracks the bottle cork and checks the sea currents till she finds her man-Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), a widowed sailboat-builder operating out of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And off she scampers to his arms.

If you're with me so far, you're a better man than I, Gunga Din. Have romantic dramas sunk so low that somebody would actually buy this bilge of goods? Apparently so, because the Nicholas Sparks novel on which the lumbering 'sogga' is based occupied a slot on the best-seller list beyond the six-month mark. Adapter Gerald DiPego merely repeats the mistakes, clunking from one incredible contrivance to the next. And director Luis Mandoki takes the thing in slo-mo, like a hair-shampoo commercial (much too much strolling along beatific beaches), giving you plenty of time to ponder the improbabilities.

Given the patent idiocy of the premise and the pat way it unravels, your mind tends to wander more than a little. One of the things you can contemplate is how clever the casting director was to come up with Paul Newman for the role of Costner's dad. There actually seems to be a family resemblance, particularly around the eyes. Of course, it's a bit uncomfortable watching Hud stumbling around like a sea-faring Polonius mouthing words of wisdom to his grief-struck son ('You choose-the past or the future. Pick one and stick with it.'). Still, Newman handily puts the picture in his hip pocket and saunters off with it.

These are the only three roles of consequence. Wright Penn carries the bulk of the plot, and co-producer Costner is content to be her soft-focused, passive object of desire. The other parts waste the time of some able actors, all of whom bring substance and history to the table-John Savage, Tom Aldredge and Bethel Leslie as Costner's warring in-laws, Illeana Douglas as Wright Penn's office pal, an unexpected Robbie Coltrane as her Brit boss, Richard Hamilton as a bartender and Rosemary Murphy as a B&B manager.

It takes a sea storm, thrown in almost arbitrarily in the final reel, for the film to switch on the tear ducts and bring things to a damp resolution, where it was plainly going all along. Message in a Bottle aims squarely at the heart and never gets remotely near the head.

--Harry Haun