In Hope Floats , Sandra Bullock Is Still the Girl Next Door

Prom Queen Slouches Home

“All Southerners go home sooner or later, even if in a box,” said Truman Capote. In Hope Floats , a tender film of warmth and insight directed by that fine actor Forest Whitaker and written with uncommon sensitivity by Steven Rogers, Sandra Bullock plays a former beauty queen from a small town in Texas who returns home in search of a new beginning after life has kicked her in the shins. In clothes off the rack, with no makeup and only her talent to lean on, she redeems herself from the bad rap she’s had recently and gives an appealing, no-frills performance of moment-to-moment honesty and naturalism. Both the film and its star are a quiet, reassuring revelation.

When she left Smithville, Tex., Birdee Calvert was the Girl Most Likely to Succeed. Popular and beautiful, she was a high school celebrity who married the man of her dreams and moved to Chicago, shaking the Texas dust from her boots with an air of haughty grandeur. Now, with a marriage on the rocks and a child to raise, Birdee experiences the ultimate humiliation when her best friend (Rosanna Arquette) announces on one of those trashy Jerry Springer -type TV confessionals that she is sleeping with Birdee’s husband Bill (Michael Paré). Disgraced on network TV and emotionally mangled beyond repair, Birdee packs up her daughter Bernice (played with peachy precocity by Mae Whitman) and moves home to Smithville to live with her eccentric mother Ramona (Gena Rowlands in another of those luminous portrayals of feisty, undaunted maternal strength that light up the screen).

It’s hard for Bernice, adjusting to a small-town elementary school after Chicago, but it’s even tougher for Birdee, a once-arrogant prom queen who lands back in town with her life in bruised pieces. What happens to these lovable, offbeat characters in Hope Floats is nothing much and everything. This is a movie that is not so much about life as it is about the dumb, brave choices we make while living it. While Birdee copes with her own depression and learns self-reliance for the first time in her life, her mother discovers the value of showing real feelings before it’s too late. Ms. Bullock plays a woman on the verge of losing her natural zest for life, while Ms. Rowlands plays an older, wiser woman with too much zest to go around. The daughter has never felt loved, the mother has always loved too much but has shown it poorly. There’s also a father who is wasting away in a nursing home from Alzheimer’s disease and an unlikely beau (Harry Connick Jr.) who wants to recapture the awkward feelings he and Birdee had for each other when they were 16. This, too, is difficult when the only make-out spot in Smithville is a deserted drive-in movie.

Before the languorous pace of hick town life moves toward a confrontation with priorities, all of the beautifully realized characters grow and change and find out it’s O.K. to be who they really are. The point, as one character discovers, is that “Life just kind of moves along, and you have to move along with it.” Through death and tears and renewed hope, these gritty Texans learn to survive what life dishes out and play the cards they’ve been dealt bravely. Although Hope Floats depends a lot on folksy charm and has been photographed ripely by the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, it is never mawkish, sentimental or inconsequential. From the daily lives lived out around them to the central characters and their emotional confrontations, from the natural sleepiness of Smithville (a bump in the road near Austin) to the haunted-house personality of Ramona’s timeless home, you are lured into a setting oblivious to progress, a perfect place to take deep breaths, reflect and ponder. The filmmakers have skillfully created an unflashy Texas world decorated by the Sears Roebuck catalogue, where heartbreak and redemption may seem limited to matters of finance, but in the bigger picture have their most lasting effects on the heart. It comes as no surprise that Birdee discovers the things she always needed for peace were right in her own backyard.

Mr. Whitaker, who proved he could handle women’s problems with Waiting to Exhale , examines the lives of these Texans in midlife crisis with the dexterity of a man testing a sirloin for doneness on a patio grill. The performances he coaxes out of an exceptional cast are so human and honest, you forget they’re professional actors and start regarding them as friends and neighbors. Ms. Bullock gives the most emotionally direct yet complex performance of her career, while the rapturous Ms. Rowlands, in another of her sexy-over-60 turns, is tough, generous, complicated and proud. She’s a Mack truck disguised as a powder puff. Together, they breathe life into a delicate film about love, loss and sharing, and show the generational ties that bind them together inescapably.

Hope Floats is the kind of film about the feelings and emotions of ordinary folk that rarely gets financed now, but in a summer of giant lizards and crashing comets, it’s a welcome antidote to trashy, brainless stupidity. Its dramatic scope may seem narrow, but do not dismiss it as just another woman’s picture. For anyone concerned with destiny, the courage to turn adversity into triumph, or the healing powers of love, it’s a very big picture indeed.

1,000 Pictures and Their Songs

Cabaret goes legit as the Manhattan Theater Club inaugurates its summer music season with Mary Cleere Haran’s cleverly structured compilation of movie songs from the 1930′s under the umbrella title Pennies From Heaven . This is a reworked, sharpened and skillfully restaged version of the highly acclaimed club act she unveiled last year at the Algonquin Hotel and contains some additions to the original repertoire. You can thrill to the joy and panache of it all in Ms. Haran’s new CD on Angel Records (on sale in the lobby at City Center as you enter) but for maximum impact, the show’s the thing. For this foray into the Depression years, when people escaped their travails for two hours at a time in dark movie palaces and came out recharged, the liltingly lovely singer leaves no stone unturned.

Through the powerful persuasion of songs like “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze” and “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!” she transports us on a guided tour of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, dust bowl migrations, Jack Armstrong’s secret whistle codes, bullet-ridden crime sprees, union strikes, gardenia corsages and big band swing, as we conjure up treasured memories, for 25 cents a ticket, of gangsters, hobos, orphans and gold diggers of paradise in celluloid. For the transition from cabaret lounge to concert stage, John Lee Beatty has designed an elegant setting-blue gels on a brick wall adorned with Art Deco sconces and separated by mahogany pillars and sheer chiffon drapes behind the extra-long grand piano-where the dreamy chords of ace composer-pianist Richard Rodney Bennett complete the midnight mood. It’s like being in a swanky penthouse with a bad view.

Against this setting, Ms. Haran swirls, slinks and sensually sells her songs in a Jean Harlow gown of backless, clinging one-piece black velvet for 90 intermissionless minutes of musical ecstasy. Without wasting a moment, the singer and the songs blend into a March of Time panorama, punctuated by wry observations of the era, the music and the performer’s own life. While Ms. Haran was growing up with an interest in proms and pep rallies, it was her sister Bronwyn who knew, at the age of 9, where Sing Sing was, as well as the names of all the Dead End Kids. An interest in old movies rubbed off, and now Ms. Haran exhibits a passion for speak-easies and their raucous hostesses, like Sophie Tucker and Texas Guinan, that is equaled only by her enthusiasm for Canadian whisky runs, truck hijackings on the Warner Brothers highway and the bombastic energy of James Cagney.

From heaven-sent working girls such as Alice Faye, Jean Arthur and Joan Blondell to the eye-rolling antics of Eddie Cantor, she brings a forgotten era back to life engagingly, and rediscovers some great songs in the bargain: the smoldering “Night in Manhattan,” a rap-tap “Broadway Jamboree” by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson from the 1937 Alice Faye musical You’re a Sweetheart , a satiny “I’m in the Mood for Love,” which she croons meltingly with its beautiful but seldom performed verse intact. Dreamily phrasing “I Only Have Eyes for You” behind the beat, or dueting with Mr. Bennett on a lazy “Sweet and Low,” which James Cagney and Joan Blondell sang sensually on a Chesterfield sofa in Footlight Parade , a broad canvas is embroidered of tarnished sequins and lost innocence that will never come again. From the Busby Berkeley showgirls plunking their neon violins in the surreal feminist nightmare of “Shadow Waltz” to the black-and-white RKO musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Ms. Haran covers a lot of territory and establishes squatter’s rights.

As cabaret singers go, there is none more appealing or savvy than Mary Cleere Haran. She was obviously born in the wrong decade. In the old days, she would have sung with Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman and ended up in the movies like Doris Day. And as cabaret in concert goes, there is no more enchanting offering on view than this. Unlike the movies of the Depression, Ms. Haran provides her own happy ending, through June 7.