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by: Scott Renshaw

I envy Forest Whitaker, because he's one man who doesn't have to hear that accusation most men hear when it comes to "women's films": that he "just doesn't get it."  Black women seemed to think he got it when he made the surprise hit WAITING TO EXHALE, and Whitaker himself seemed to think he could continue getting it when he chose HOPE FLOATS as his follow-up project.  Women and men, mothers and daughters, girls and their girlfriends...yep, Whitaker has thrown his y chromosome into the fray with a blissful disregard for the conventional wisdom that men can't do justice to the trials of women.

I'm sure someone somewhere will accuse me of "just not getting" HOPE FLOATS.  What I really didn't get was how Whitaker could take a fairly simple story and make it so ragged and unfocused.  It opens promisingly enough, with a clever sequence in which a devastated Birdee Pruitt (Sandra Bullock) learns on a nationally televised daytime talk show that her husband Bill (Michael Pare) is having an affair with her best friend (an unbilled Rosanna Arquette).  Birdee promptly packs up her things and her young daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman) and drives from Chicago back to her hometown of Smithville, Texas where her mother (Gena Rowlands) still lives and where all her high school classmates still remember her as the cheerleader and homecoming queen who seemed to have it all.

HOPE FLOATS might have worked if it had explored its unique premise for all its dramatic and comedic possibilities.  Surrounding an emotionally wounded housewife with people who knew her as a teen beauty queen -- and who most likely harbor a secret delight at her failure -- would be a fascinating way to to watch her grow up and come to terms with the unreasonable expectations of her youth.  Instead, HOPE FLOATS relegates that context to a few isolates snippets, opting instead to focus on plastic relationship dynamics.  Harry Connick Jr. plays the role of the nice guy with such obvious puppy dog likeabilty that there's never a moment's tension in the romance between him and Bullock.  The mother-daughter relationship between Bullock and Rowlands is similarly tepid, despite a pleasant performance by Rowlands in the role of conspicuous eccentric (she practices home taxidermy).  The film never feels like anyone knows exactly where it should go, what we should be learning about Birdee, and why her story should matter to us at all.

Part of the problem -- perhaps a very large part -- is the casting of Bullock in the lead role.  Bullock is a charming actress with a killer smile, but she doesn't appear to have the faintest idea how to play this character.  So what she does is smile, and smile constantly, in every possible context to display every possible emotion.  She smiles radiantly while dancing with Connick; she smiles pleasantly while accepting the barbs of her former classmates; she smiles ruefully when she turns down Connick's request for a date; she smiles drunkenly at a bar.  It makes a certain sense that the one-time Miss Congeniality would be an inveterate smiler, but her smile is used as substitute for characterization, as though it won't matter that we don't understand her at all as long as we find her so darned nice.

This generally scattered approach to the material carries through Whitaker's direction -- in cross-cutting which blunts emotional impact, in abrupt changes of focus, in an over-dependence on Caleb Deschanel's silky cinematography.  The best result of his lack of focus is the amount of time spent following Bernice and her cousin Travis (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER's Cameron Finley), the nearly-abandoned son of Birdee's flighty would-be actress sister.  Both young actors are wonderful, Whitman coping with taunting classmates and the absence of her father, Travis living in a perpetual fantasy world dressed up as a frog or a cowboy or a dog.  Their story -- the story of how absentee parents affect children's lives -- is infinitely more involv


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