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by: Michael Dequina

Ben (Affleck). Gwyneth (Paltrow). Ben and Gwyneth. "Benneth," as some press so adorably call this confounding pair, who appear cozier as exes than they ever were as a couple. So are they or aren't they together? After seeing them play romantic leads in Bounce, no one should ever doubt their oft-repeated answer of "no" ever again.

As, respectively, ad exec Buddy Amaral and real estate agent Abby Janello, Affleck and Paltrow do display a natural rapport. Their real life connection shines through onscreen, making the basic attraction between these two opposites--he a slick hotshot, she a more earthy type--believable. However, the exact nature of that offscreen compatibility also comes across; their chemistry is more of a clicking between friends than a passionate romantic electricity--something that would give writer-director Don Roos' contrived and overly familiar story the "bounce" it needs to really work.

Naturally, there's a wrinkle to the romance between Buddy and Abby--he's indirectly responsible for her husband's death. A year or so before he meets Abby, Buddy encounters Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn) at a Chicago airport and switches plane tickets with him. Greg's plane crashes, and a guilt-ridden Buddy falls into boozy despair. A rehab stint later, Buddy tracks down Abby to see how she and her two children are handling life without Greg--only to grow fond of the young widow.

The set-up, while not the most promising, is workable, which makes it all the more disappointing that Roos develops the story in a routine and mechanical manner. Love-'em-and-leave-'em Buddy tries to brush Abby off, but she--and he--find it difficult to stay away. Abby's eldest son, whom the two are careful not to get too close in front of, catches the two in a clinch. When Buddy decides to tell Abby the big secret, someone in the know beats him to the punch. And so on. There's also the matter of the dialogue, which sometimes ventures into artificial glibness. For example, a big emotional moment where Buddy bares his soul, along the way saying he wants someone to pick videos with, is followed by an equally emotional retort by Abby, who then caps off her thoughts by tossing off exactly what types of videos she likes.

More authentic are the individual performances. Paltrow admirably eschews the glamour of her recent roles, believably transforming herself into a rather dowdy "ordinary" woman; the spectrum of emotions Paltrow travels, from perky flightiness to anguish, are also believable. Even better is Affleck. Buddy begins as the smirking, cocksure type of character he usually plays, but as the character grows more complex, Affleck's portrayal does accordingly; he subtly conveys Buddy's conflicted feelings, not to mention his maturation.

Roos directs Bounce with a similarly subdued air, which is both an asset and a liability. For a screen romance, is a refreshing lack of grandiose histrionics; Roos modulates the emotional level, going all out only when it counts the most. But since the two stars don't quite ignite together, there is little romantic intensity to lend the story much urgency; consequently, what should have been graceful understatement instead reads as lifeless detachment.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)


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