My crystal ball is on the blink. The new Gwyneth Paltrow–Ben Affleck love story called Bounce has been under lock and key for such a long time, and Miramax made it so difficult for critics to see-usually two signals that a movie is in trouble-that I suspected it would be nothing to write home about. What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover an earnest and unaffected romantic film that turns out to be smart, sexy, sophisticated and unexpectedly engaging. The two stars, romantically linked in an on-again, off-again relationship off-screen, have so much on-screen chemistry it almost literally explodes before your eyes.
Written and directed by Don Roos, whose dark and edgy The Opposite of Sex was a personal favorite of mine in 1998, Bounce takes a softer, more affirmative look at the transforming power of love through growth, maturity and forgiveness. The simplicity of its familiar plot doesn’t begin to prepare you for the subtlety and shape of the emotional undercurrents in Mr. Roos’ well-written script. On a snowy night in Chicago, a group of stranded passengers meets over drinks in the airport lounge. Although the last flight out of O’Hare to L.A. is holding a confirmed space for Buddy Amaral (Mr. Affleck), a happy-go-lucky advertising hotshot, he gives his ticket to Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn), a writer who is anxious to get home to his wife and two sons in time for Christmas. Buddy thinks he’s being a good Samaritan, but he also wants to lag behind for a one-night stand with the two fellows’ luscious blond drinking companion (Natasha Henstridge).
As cause-and-effect plots go, it should come as no shock that the plane crashes somewhere in Kansas, killing everyone on board. (A double tragedy, since it eliminates the attractive, talented and always reliable Mr. Goldwyn in the first five minutes.) After Buddy spends a year drinking himself unconscious, the guilt and remorse take their toll on his life and fragile psyche, and both his career and his personal life start to unravel. But 90 days in an alcohol-rehab center and a new commitment to A.A. give Buddy the courage to make amends by looking up the dead man’s wife, Abby (Ms. Paltrow), a rookie real estate broker who is barely making ends meet.
He meets her, throws a real estate deal her way that nets her a hefty commission, bolsters her flagging self-confidence and grows increasingly fond of her and her two boys. The deal leads to a Dodgers game, then a grilled cheese sandwich-and while their attraction grows, we wait to see how long it will take, in movie time, before he tells her the truth or she finds out on her own. Only his gay male secretary (a nice bit by the scene-stealing Johnny Galecki) knows Buddy is romancing Abby and her grieving family under false pretenses. Inevitable anger, anguish and tears ensue in a plot uncomfortably similar to last year’s fiasco, Random Hearts , but there is nothing predictable about the way the characters resolve their problems here, and the inspired teaming of Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Affleck outdistances the chilly lack of chemistry between Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas by jogger’s miles.
The title refers to what you do when life deals you a blow: You bounce back. Which is exactly what some jaded punsters will advise Ms. Paltrow to do after a bad movie. But Bounce is not a bad movie, and the two stars have nothing to regret. Their unforced interactions add up to a lot of funny, touching and revealing moments that make their characters entirely believable. Mr. Affleck is expected to change his destructive ways and grow from cocky, arrogant, self-involved hedonism to sensitive, responsible, manly maturity in 102 minutes, and he does it mostly by looking dewy-eyed and gorgeous. Ms. Paltrow looks pallid and mousy, with disastrously unflattering brown hair that camouflages her usual luminous beauty. This may be the first time she has appeared on-screen opposite a leading man who is prettier than she is. As in most ornithological species, he’s the bird of paradise with all the plumage, while she’s the little brown wren. But under Mr. Roos’ skillful, painstaking guidance, they do some of their best work in years, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are doing it together.
Some cynics may challenge the logic of being able to forgive someone who has caused the death of a loved one under any circumstances, but this movie is about growing up, letting go, moving on. A different cast might render the twists in this movie less convincing, but the Paltrow-Affleck duo is so honest, giving and real that their charisma is contagious. Maybe I was in such need of pre-holiday cheer that I warmed to Bounce with more enthusiasm than it deserves, but I liked it a lot, and I liked them even more.
A Broken Sixth Sense Team
By the time I got around to suffering my way through an atrocity called Unbreakable , I am happy to report that my crystal ball was back on target. I knew I would hate it going in. Unbreakable (talk about a title ripe for parody) is the latest chunk of poisoned apple from M. Night Shyamalan, the overrated 30-year-old writer-director of the inexplicable runaway success The Sixth Sense , that banal and incompetent bit of parapsychological mumbo-jumbo that grossed a head-scratching $661 million. When you make that kind of money, Hollywood will finance and market your grocery list and call it art. There is no other explanation for Unbreakable , a moronic waste of time concocted by people who have been reading too many Marvel comics, and one that would never have seen the light of day otherwise. Just call it Unspeakable and pass on by.
Like The Sixth Sense , Unbreakable follows a prescribed formula. It begins with another trauma up front (a train wreck instead of a shooting), takes on a creepy science-fiction veneer, plods its way through a maze of mysterious ironies challenging God and the metaphysical, and ends with a preposterous twist as baffling as the butterfly ballot. Bruce Willis is again on board for another stab at the big bucks, giving a performance as riveting and animated as a public-service announcement. This time he’s a disillusioned security guard at a college football stadium, a miserable husband and morose father,who is haunted by some dark secret that has plagued his life since childhood. As he returns to Philadelphia from job hunting in New York, his train derails, killing 131 passengers. He emerges, miraculously, without a single broken bone, the only survivor. Instead of elation, he experiences a depression that makes him wonder “Why me?”
Meanwhile, in another part of town, his story is paralleled with that of a black dealer in rare comic books (Samuel L. Jackson), who was born in a department store with broken arms and legs and has been breaking his bones ever since. Reading about Mr. Willis’ miracle in the newspapers, he intrudes on his life and convinces him that he possesses the powers of superhuman action-comics heroes. Mr. Willis also discovers his one weakness is water. (“It’s your Kryptonite,” warns Mr. Jackson.)
And so we have two stories: one about a man who has never been sick in his life, and another about a man who suffers from a genetic disorder that earns him the nickname “Mr. Glass.” It is never certain what the two stories have to do with each other or anything else-but that’s not all. Like Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel, Mr. Willis can stand in the middle of a railway station, crowded stadium or airport departure lounge, see through the pockets of drug dealers and serial killers and follow them on their appointed rounds, preventing crime without a scratch (as long as he doesn’t land in their swimming pools). This causes a domestic crisis at home, where his wife-a wasted Robin Wright Penn, who observes the huggermugger with no makeup and a furrowed brow- sleeps in a separate bedroom, and his son, who needs a psychiatrist, pulls a loaded gun on his dad to see if he can survive a bullet. Mr. Willis looks like Telly Savalas and plays the whole movie in a mumbling, monotone trance.
Nobody actually talks to anybody in this film, so the director goes for reactions to inanimate objects. Why waste time on logic, coherence and character development when you can move in on a close-up of a glass of orange juice? Nothing in Unbreakable makes one bit of sense, and by the time the movie finally gets around to revealing the evil motivation behind Mr. Jackson’s curiosity-a lame surprise that is more numbing than shocking-you will very likely feel like breaking something yourself. The Hollywood brains behind Unbreakable are betting the ranch that the same kind of ignorant mass hypnosis that made The Sixth Sense the 10th-highest grosser of all time will strike again. I am here to tell you that if history repeats itself, it will sound like flatulence.