"Hope Floats" is a difficult movie to classify at first: it's either a wicked comedy (as suggested by its excellent opening scene, which lampoons talk shows a la Ricki Lake) or a nausea-inducing Sandra Bullock flick. For every exchange such as, "What's that funny smell?" "Cows" as they cross the Texas state line, there is a turkey of a pick-up line such as "Dancing's just two people having a conversation - talk to me." Unfortunately, the turkeys triumph and the film degenerates into commercial wholesomeness and creepy pat resolution.
The movie centers on Birdee Pruitt's (Sandra Bullock, fresh from her stint as the annoying desk clerk on "E.R." - oh, wait, that wasn't her, just her evil twin) struggle to regain her self-esteem and some semblance of a life after her husband leaves her for her best friend. Apparently, this struggle can only take place in her hometown (or would that be hicktown?) of Smithville, Texas. Along the way she must come to terms with her relationships with her loving, Alzheimer's-stricken father and no-nonsense, animal-stuffing mother (played to the hilt by Gena Rowlands); her angry young daughter, Bernice (Mae Whitman, who provides much of the comic relief); becoming a virtual outsider after her homecoming queen beginnings in her hometown; and the efforts of her once and always suitor, Justin Matisse (Harry Connick Jr.).
Sound by-the-numbers? It is, and director Forest Whitaker makes no effort to elevate his smarmy material above mediocrity with his equally by-the-numbers direction.
The first sign of trouble in the film appears in the opening credits, which fittingly appear on screen only after the opening talk show scene. There it is, in frightening five-foot-tall letters: "Executive Soundtrack Producers." Whitaker apparently decided to go for a change of pace with this Bullock vehicle: rather than use extensive sappy scoring, he chose to use only mildly extensive sappy scoring with extremely extensive sappy songs that attempt to explain what a character is feeling rather than letting the viewers figure it out from the images thrown up before us. I guess we can't be trusted to be intelligent enough to understand emotions without a little help - and that's probably right, since the average "Hope Floats" viewer might be a few cards short of a full deck.
On the plus side of things, comedy abounds and lightens what would otherwise be a truly unbearable piece of filmmaking. Little cousin Travis (Cameron Finley) dresses up as a different animal each day of the week (watching Travis and Grandma do the Budweiser frog routine at the breakfast table with Travis in full Kermit costume almost - almost - excuses the total inanity of the animal fixation). At school, new girl Bernice goes up against Big Dolores ("She's got her own gang, too - it's called `Big Dolores'") and survives. And what movie set in Texas would be complete without a country barn dance and a disco ball in the shape of a saddle?
Comedic interludes do not a good movie make, however; in fact, by highlighting the monotony of everything else, it makes for a pretty crummy movie. The lighthearted moments are ruined with slow, pathetic scenes that include moral proselytizing on a porch swing about following your heart and a beer commercial-like union between Birdee and Justin. Slo-mo takes over every five minutes, making an already tedious film even longer. And the kicker: the use of not only the ubiquitous "Titanic" penny whistle, but a Bryan Adams song - at the same time!
"Hope Floats" is a fitting follow-up to last summer critical and box office loser, "Speed 2: Poop Floats." It also opens the possibility for prequels ("Hope Bloats") and sequels ("Hope Farts"). Don't catch this while you still can - your stomach will thank you later.
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