Hope Floats - * * 1/2*

Sandra Bullock rebounds from Speed 2 with a romantic drama that’s routine, but enjoyable.

Birdee Pruitt (Sandra Bullock) was the most popular girl in high school. She was cheerleader, prom queen, and married the quarterback, Bill (Michael ParĂ©). Everything was perfect…and then it changed. One day, she’s invited to be a guest on the Toni Post show (ostensibly to receive a free makeover), only to have her best friend and her husband reveal their affair on national television.

Birdee swallows her pride, takes her daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman), and moves back to her small Texas hometown. There she finds more changes. Her beloved father is now suffering from Alzheimer’s and a stroke. The losers she derided when she was class queen have changed for the better, and take delight in Birdee’s reversal of fortune.

But Birdee’s mother, Ramona (Gena Rowlands), hasn’t changed much. She’s still meddlesome and eccentric (her hobby is taxidermy). And she tries to set Birdee’s life straight by hooking her up with town handyman Justin Matisse (Harry Connick Jr).

The problem with this sort of setup is that everyone knows what’s best for Birdee, but you have to wait through the whole film for her to finally realize what’s been obvious all along. This can be a nuisance if it is the only dramatic wellspring in a film, but luckily, in Hope Floats, there is one other source of drama: social status.

A crucial character flaw of Birdee is her refusal to accept change. She was on the top of the world during high school, and any change will only lead downhill. What she doesn’t realize is that the rest of the world has moved on while she remained in the past, and now the very qualities which made her the most popular girl in school are a liability rather than an asset. The film nicely parallels her story with that of Bernice, who is just starting to establish her place in the formative social strata of school.

And, of course, while all these social observations are going on, the romance is a necessary evil. Bullock and Connick Jr. make an attractive couple, even if they are a bit heavy on the saccharine. Bullock tackles her first meaty role in quite a while, and carries it off nicely. In his first leading role, Connick proves he can pull his own weight. (However, the question still remains whether he can portray something besides the down-home guy he typically plays.)

Director Forest Whitaker indulges himself by allowing one too many “cutesy” moments to pervade the film (such as an all too exuberant “cheer-up” song, or “awww”-inspiring closeups of little kids dancing). But, aside from that, he does a good job of shepherding the mostly straightforward story.

Hope Floats isn’t a perfect romance, and it’s not a perfect drama. But, as the message of the movie goes, being ordinary isn’t all that bad.

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