Going in, I knew The Lake House involved some kind of magical mail service that allowed people to exchange letters across the boundaries of time. But for some reason, my analog-era thinking led me to assume there would actually be a mailman that facilitated the magic, perhaps with a Cockney accent and a penchant for distributing sage advice to the lovelorn along his mail route. The Lake House, however, has no such character. The rusty mailbox stationed outside the house in question is basically an e-mail box on a stick. A user scribbles down a message on a scrap of paper, crams it inside, then impatiently crosses their arms and taps their toe until the box's red flag pops up of its own volition. It seems like the only thing missing is a booming voice from the clouds....."You've got mail!"

The pen pals: Alex (Keanu Reeves) and Kate (Sandra Bullock), two Chicago professionals living out their lives in 2004 and 2006, respectively. She, a doctor, leaves a forwarding address behind as she moves out of the place. He, an architect, forwards a note after moving in, and the two begin a temporally askew correspondence. "I'll play this game," she mutters, thinking he must be flirting by insisting the correct year is 2004. Before long, they are taxing their brains to find a way around an old law of movie love -- relationships based on intense circumstances never last.

Although based on the Korean film Il Mare, this is nevertheless the latest installment in the ongoing "turning Japanese" phenomenon, in which a cerebral and ghostly Asian import is ironed of its quirks and leisurely running time, and re-fashioned into a 100-minute vehicle for some toothy American star (or stars). Like its J-horror cousins, The Lake House drops its characters into a totally miraculous situation, and then has them more or less accept it as a freakish turn of nature while they get on with the business of living and loving. Explanations don't even enter into it, which can be frustrating for those of us without any natural predisposition toward a Shinto harmony with the unknowable mysteries of nature. It would seem more American to have the characters take that mailbox apart piece by piece to find out how the hell it works, and then, how money could be made from it. (A June 16, 2006 edition of The Wall Street Journal would come in handy for someone stuck in June 16, 2004.) Really, though -- what kind of real-life people would only be mildly curious about a time portal existing at the end of their driveway? How could they skirt past the possibilities and settle into the grooves of a flaccid romance of the mind so quickly? If I were somehow convinced that I was in communication with a person living in 2008, I would at least sit down and write out 100 questions about the future, and I would expect thorough answers.

Being the correspondent of the future is clearly the advantageous position -- you never have to wait on results. After exchanging several letters through the magic box and deciding that they can't live without each other, Kate points out, reasonably, that the best answer to their dilemma is for Alex to sit it out for two years and then arrive on the spot in 2006 -- tomorrow, in her time -- to meet her. (There's a nice gag about a hip new restaurant that has no problem taking reservations two years in advance) But Alex is unable to resist tracking down 2004 Kate and inserting himself into her life at that juncture. Despite the possibility that he may unravel the fabric of spacetime and destroy the universe, he uses pilfered information from the future such as Kate's inexplicable infatuation with the Jane Austen novel Persuasion to gain an advantage over her 2004 boyfriend and save himself the two years. Most recent movies have steered away from the time-honored tradition of having the third wheel in a star-driven romance be a complete turd; The Lake House is a nice return to form in that respect. Dylan Walsh takes on the thankless task of playing Kate's nerdy businessman boyfriend, Morgan. During a scene in which Alex crashes Kate's 2004 birthday party and Morgan watches helplessly as he steals a kiss from her, the audience at my screening laughed and clapped.

The overall verdict? As Michael Douglas said to Charlie Sheen in Wall Street, "Mixed emotions, buddy." To satisfy two distinct constituencies -- those looking for satisfying science-fiction and those expecting heart-wrenching romance -- requires Clintonian triangulation, and in that respect The Lake House is Bob Dole: Director Alejandro Agresti is simply in over his head. The best evidence for this lies in the fact that many of the film's key characters -- I'm thinking of Christopher Plummer as Alex's distant father -- don't even know they are in a science fiction film. The other half of the movie just shuts down while character-building busywork goes on. (Kate's best friend thinks she's having a letter romance with someone in prison.) The opportunity to make up for these deficits is also wasted with poor technical accomplishments. The cinematography is static and lackluster, there is no memorable score, and we have to contend with a plot twist that telegraphs itself so loudly it could easily be inferred by someone who had stepped out for popcorn during the crucial scene. That said, the film isn't glaringly bad. It focuses most of its energy on telling a complicated story in a way that's understandable but not overly explanatory. It also wisely avoids adding to the franchise of recent Bullock vehicles in which she plays at being artificially chirpy. She's much more of a natural sourpuss, and if this film is successful, she'll be playing cancer patients and suicidal writers in no time, and we'll all breathe easier.