Theresa Osborne, a former reporter, works as a researcher for the Chicago Tribune. On a trip to Cape Cod, she finds a mysterious, intriguing and typed love letter in a bottle in the sand, addressed to Catherine. She is fascinated by it and shows it to her colleagues. They print it in their newspaper without the knowledge of Theresa and get numerous responses. One of the response contains an attached letter which was addressed to the same person and written in the same tone. Later, they receive another letter of the same kind from one of the readers which was not addressed to Catherine, but typed on the same notepad. Eventually, they track him down with the help of the typewriter and the notepad used. His name is Garrett Blake and he lives quietly on the Outer Banks of North Carolina near his father, Dodge.
Theresa goes to Outer banks to research it further but when she meets him, they each get attracted to other and start becoming better acquainted. She tries to tell him about the original purpose of her visit but fears that she might lose him and postpones it. Along with the literal distance between them — they live hundreds of miles apart — there is another problem: Garret cannot quite forgive Catherine for dying and leaving him.
Theresa's career flourishes as the romantic "message in a bottle" tale is told in print, without naming names. Garret makes a trip to Chicago to visit Theresa and her young son. They seem very happy together for a day, but Garrett sees his letters, becomes furious and starts to leave. But when Theresa reveals that there are three letters of the same kind, he becomes intrigued as he only wrote two of them and comes back to see another letter. The third letter, which was not addressed to Catherine, was actually written by Catherine; in that letter, she reveals her love, her knowledge of her impending death, and how she was content with her life with Garrett, however short it might be. Garrett leaves with the letter, leaving Theresa in tears.
Garrett moves on with his life and sets things straight with Catherine's family, who had been fighting with Garrett for the artworks of Catherine. He finishes his own personalized boat with the help of Catherine's brother and names it 'Catherine', and sends an invitation to Theresa to visit. When Theresa goes there, she witnesses the passionate speech of Garrett about his late wife Catherine and understands that he still is in love with his late wife, and leaves him telling that he is welcome to call her when he thinks he is ready to start a new life.
After that night, Garrett writes a letter to Catherine and puts it in a bottle and goes sailing. A storm breaks out and Garrett desperately tries to save a family from a sinking boat and succeeds to save two out of three; however, in the process, he himself gets drowned. Garrett's father Dodge calls Theresa and tells her about his death. Heartbroken, Theresa goes there to say goodbye; Dodge gives her a letter which was written by Garrett on the day of his death. In that letter, Garrett writes that he found someone else, who is as dear as Catherine to him and decides to start a new life with her, and asks for Catherine's blessings. Though devastated, Theresa comes back contented stating that though this experience left her sad, it also helped her to feel the most important thing in life.Kevin Costner as Garret Blake
Robin Wright as Theresa Osborne
Paul Newman as Dodge Blake
Susan Brightbill as Catherine Land Blake
John Savage as Johnny Land
Illeana Douglas as Lina Paul
Robbie Coltrane as Charlie Toschi
Jesse James as Jason Osborne
Bethel Leslie as Marta Land
Tom Aldredge as Hank Land
Hayden Panettiere as Girl on Boat
The producers originally planned to film on Tangier Island, Virginia, but some members of the town council objected to the drinking, cursing and sex in the film and demanded script revisions in exchange for shooting permission, even though this turned out to be rated PG-13.
Warner Bros. then tried Martha's Vineyard near Chilmark, Massachusetts, but the Chilmark Conservation Commission turned down a request to build a temporary 3,000-square-foot (280 m2) house on stilts in the dunes near Chilmark Pond.
Beach scenes were filmed at Popham Beach in Phippsburg, Maine.
The fog-bound harbor near the end is New Harbor, Maine. None of the coastal scenes are the Outer Banks (the setting of the novel), which has neither rocks, bluffs, nor tall pines; nor does the Outer Banks have the roughly 10 foot tides indicated by the docks shown throughout the beginning of the film. Carolina tides average about 5 feet.
Irish music group Clannad wrote the song "What Will I Do" for the film. Singer Richard Marx also composed the song "One More Time", sung by Laura Pausini, which played during the credits.
Message in a Bottle has grossed $52,880,016 in North America and $66,000,000 in other territories for a worldwide total of $118,880,016.
In its opening weekend, the film grossed $18,852,976, finishing first at the box office, knocking off Payback from the top box office ($17,719,502).
The film received negative reviews from critics. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 32% rating, based on 38 reviews, with an average rating of 5.2/10. Metacritic reports a 39 out of 100 rating, based on 23 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2 out of 4 stars, praising the lead actors, particularly Newman "steals every scene he's in", but criticized the contrived ending. Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter called it a "dreary, lachrymose and incredibly poky tear-jerker" but conceded it had a built in audience among those who put the book on the bestseller list.
Message in a Bottle was released on DVD on August 3, 1999.