By Stephanie Zacharek
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When last we spied Sandra Bullock, the plucky action heroine was clinging to a sea-washed railing aboard Hollywood's other doomed ocean liner--not the one that hit the major ice cube, but the one that plowed through a Caribbean resort town while audiences hooted with unintended laughter.
Speed 2: Cruise Control was the price Bullock had to pay for sudden stardom in Speed: Slog through the sequel, take your lumps, get up off the deck. At least she earned payback. In return for inflicting Speed 2 on her, 20th Century Fox agreed to finance Bullock's pet project, Hope Floats. It's a sweet thing that contains neither booby-trapped city buses nor runaway ships, and the star gets to emote and do the Texas two-step to her heart's content.
If you don't mind wading through a little goo, if your threshhold for precocious kiddie actors is way up there, and if you've never watched Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck sacrifice herself to high ideals, this is not a bad two hours in the air-conditioned darkness.
The present screenwriter, newcomer Steven Rogers, certainly didn't invent the drama of the shallow beauty who discovers, through hard trial, that character is more important than eye shadow. And the present director, industry hyphenate Forest Whitaker, isn't the first guy to wring a tear or two from the adage that vain worldly dreams are outranked by the comforts of family and hearth. They've simply given these old standbys a new set of clothes.
That's apparently why we find Ms. Bullock, in scene one, in the middle of a reasonable facsimile of the Ricki Lake show. Before Bullock's Birdee Pruitt, a former prom queen married to the ex-star quarterback of her youth, has time to even think My husband is sleeping with my best friend, the husband (Michael Pare) and the best friend (Rosanna Arquette) shout that revelation live to the trash-TV multitudes. Birdee's fifteen minutes of fame are tossed onto the junk heap, along with her perfect marriage and her self-esteem.
What to do? Unschooled and unskilled, Birdee packs her suitcase and her nine-year-old, Bernice (Mae Whitman), into the car and slinks back home to rural, dusty-as-all-get-out Smithville, Texas. There, I'm afraid, she runs smack dab into almost every small-town, salt-of-the-earth stereotype known to moviedom in the Lone Star State. Naturally, there's Mother (Gena Rowlands), a brassy blond survivor who knows a thing or two about life. There's the usual collection of ex-high-school classmates, equally divided between the shrinking violets still awed by Birdee's dazzle in the beauty pageants of yesteryear and the resentful girls who remember how she snubbed them. Among Smithville's weary cafe waitresses and nosy, bow-tied merchants, we also encounter Dad (James N. Harrell), an Alzheimer's victim reduced to tormented silence in the local rest home.
If that's not putting a fine enough point on what Birdee lost when she moved to big, bad Chicago, the filmmakers also provide the obligatory boy next door. In this case he's a lean, laconic Texas type with the rather too obvious handle of Justin Matisse--part cowboy boot, part artist, you can't help thinking. Paul Newman's too old for Justin these days, so the part's gone to the romantic crooner Harry Connick Jr. Just the fellow, with his bedroom eyes and modified Louisiana drawl, to rekindle in our devastated Birdee the fires of homemade romance.
But first we're force-fed the entire Whitman Sampler.
Director Whitaker is, of course, also an actor of substance, having played Charlie Parker in Bird and the British hostage-soldier in The Crying Game, among many roles. Like most actors-turned-directors, he has a soft spot for his fellow players (witness his debut, Waiting to Exhale). He also has an apparent weakness for children. So in Hope Floats, he indulges every whim of the nine-year-old Whitman, from bellowing tantrum to scene-stealing wisecrack to tearful pout to coy manipulation. If this is a movie about how a deflated former beauty queen comes to terms with real life, it's also about a third-grader eating scenery. Bullock, Rowlands and Connick might sound publicly sweet and supportive this week on the subject of their tiny co-star, who also played President Bill Pullman's daughter in Independence Day. But I'll wager that, deep in their hearts, they wouldn't mind seeing little Mae kept after school for, say, the next eight years.
Against the odds, Bullock (who also executive-produced) does a very nice job here. Whitaker doesn't control the tone of the picture very well--it keeps veering from vivid human observation to mawkishness--but Bullock earns her dramatic stripes as Birdee emerges from grief and disillusionment into the discovery of her true self. "I'm just an ordinary person," she marvels. Yes, and Hope Floats might be a completely ordinary movie, were it not for the incandescent moments Bullock here and there provides. Look for Birdee's second scene with her tragic father, for instance, or listen to the timbre of her regret when she and Connick revisit Smithville's ruined drive-in theater.
In a film that is largely a mixed blessing, more miss than hit, this underrated actress proves she's much more than the pretty face who once aimed a city bus through sheer chaos. Like Birdee Pruitt, Bullock seems in Hope Floats to find herself. Now, if that damn kid would just take a nap.
Screenplay by Steven Rogers. Directed by Forest Whitaker. With Sandra Bullock, Gena Rowlands, Mae Whitman and Harry Connick Jr.
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