If the concept of dubious celebrity Ben Affleck romping in a water park with cinematic darling Gwyneth Paltrow and two adorable moppets does not inspire in you spasms of dizziness and nausea, then you may find plenty to tolerate in Bounce, the new romantic dramedy from writer/director Don Roos. This sequence comes late in a movie suffused with earnest attempts to uncover the roots of emotional truth, so, in a way, it plays as a welcome respite from all the drilling and probing. Unfortunately, these moments of strained mirth also indicate how false and fabricated the whole enterprise really is -- just a couple of well-to-do superstars doing their darnedest to prove to us that they're regular folk. And failing.
Best known so far for his punchy and snide directorial debut, The Opposite of Sex, Roos approaches Bounce like a man with a mission -- mainly, to prove that his heart pumps more than amusing black gunk -- so it's commendable that he has sloughed off the wicked-world view that informed his previous work, to venture boldly into more conventional territory. The problem is that he has fallen directly into the most obvious of sophomore slumps, allowing his keen wit and intimate observations to be corrupted by a rather forced sense of sincerity. As he brings his screenplay only halfway to life, it's easy to wonder if the good folks at Miramax simply dusted off this competent but unremarkable script as a convenient vehicle for Affleck and Paltrow, who have already met their quota of romantic leads with the likes of Chasing Amy and Sliding Doors, thank you very much.
Following an ethereal, cloud-bound title sequence, the story opens in Chicago, as the big-mouthed, hotshot ad executive Buddy Amaral (Affleck) speeds through the snow to O'Hare Airport after closing a lucrative deal with Infinity Airlines. In the manner of business travelers everywhere, he immediately makes friends with everyone he encounters, settling down in the airport bar with a zestful agent named Mimi Praeger (Natasha Henstridge) and a floundering playwright named Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn). Once Greg gamely suffers Buddy's merciless, frat-boy barbs -- first mocked as a ratty Let's Go! tourist, then sitting Spartan as his Whitman-inspired play is eviscerated by a dork who deems theater useless in our cinematic age -- it becomes clear that he's a decent, friendly family man and, thus, marked for death.
As the newfound pals assess the sociological value of both Mimi ("You gotta love this -- she's in organ development!") and Buddy ("Advertising -- it's like agenting, without the heart."), the flurries outside start whipping into a blizzard, and Buddy convinces a flirty, irritable airline attendant named Janice (Jennifer Grey) to let Greg fly home to L.A. in his place. One saccharine beam from Mimi ensures that two pulses are about to quicken, while one is about to stop cold.
After some nasty business involving Affleck in bed and a massive fireball slamming into Kansas, the repercussions of Buddy's libidinous choice begin to hit. Not only is he forced to shoulder the burden of wrenching guilt (which closely resembles smirking, until the suspension of disbelief kicks in), his moment of lust has cost him the faith of his stern business partner, Jim Weller (Joe Morton). Mocking the combined forces of his agency and the airline -- which have taken on the vulgar task of spinning the crash into a commercially exploitative eulogy of the victims -- Buddy dives straight into the bottle and winds up imprisoned in a Palm Springs detox center for several months. This is convenient, specifically because it allows Greg's downtrodden widow, Abby (Paltrow), time to grieve and get hungry for love again.
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Much like the campaigns Buddy finds increasingly offensive along his road to recovery, Bounce reeks of board meetings, at which the compassionate, humanitarian qualities of this tandem showcase were no doubt carved and contoured. Once we trudge through some cute antics -- involving Abby's middlebrow Realtor status, her wacky rottweiler (which, miraculously, devours neither of her children) and the hopeful Buddy driving out to the home in the San Fernando Valley to check on her, only to find himself instantly head over heels in love -- the major conflict strikes: He knows who she is, but she thinks he's simply a benevolent, wealthy stranger. How is he going to tell her? Will she still love him? And, above all, why does she live in the Brady Bunch's old house? Oh well, as the classic rock tune goes, if you can't be with the one you love, love the one who's duping you big time.
Named after a philosophical pep talk from Abby's culturally challenged mother (Caroline Aaron), Bounce is supposedly about rebounding after horror and hardship, but it's really just a simple tale of rabid opportunism.
It's pretty clear why the leads were attracted to the project -- he gets to play a selfish prick learning to open his heart; she gets to cry and shake -- but their work here is miles away from convincing. (Director Roos has said of Paltrow that "she has a face like a sheet of paper," intended as praise, but quite open to interpretation.) Apart from pheromones, these two have no solid reason to come together, let alone to endure deceit and manipulation en route to everlasting happiness. As far as jet-crash romances go, it surpasses the slow ride to nowhere of Random Hearts, but, by playing the love as a given, the movie could hardly be called Fearless. If only Roos -- like the more emotionally adventurous Peter Weir -- could have taken his own advice, that an act "isn't brave if you're not scared," the story could have surprised us. Instead, we're treated to relentless posturing and bathos better left in an acting workshop.
Not that Roos -- a smart writer with a gift for powerful moments -- entirely desiccates his potentially juicy script. While Affleck and Paltrow soul kissing in close-up is unforgivable, and the book on commercial evil was written and closed by Bruce Robinson's brilliant How to Get Ahead in Advertising more than a decade ago, Roos displays a steady hand for tricky family moments. In a few scenes, as when Affleck dries his heinous tears and decisively protects a child from a lifetime of remorse, the tone is true and moving. Otherwise, when he begs to apologize for himself, he is answered with the movie's most profound line: "Good boy -- now just don't do it again."