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Neoscrewball Strikes Out

At the movies the fun-loving temptress has been liberating the buttoned-up clod ever since Katharine Hepburn's leopard made off with Cary Grant's dinosaur bone in Bringing Up Baby 61 years ago. Maybe even longer, if you count pioneer vamp Theda Bara's effect on a long succession of speechless men. In a new romantic comedy called Forces of Nature -- new in the sense that it's fresh product at the multiplexes -- we encounter the old story again: Reckless Sandra Bullock puts a charge in uptight Ben Affleck, and he starts to wonder where she's been all his life, despite the fact he's marrying somebody else on Saturday.

Between their chance meeting on an airliner that skids off a runway in New York and their bittersweet goodbye a couple days later in a hurricane-tossed garden in Savannah, Bullock's wild Sarah and Affleck's cautious Ben are subjected to every neoscrewball mishap and road-movie disaster scriptwriter Marc Lawrence and director Bronwen Hughes (Harriet the Spy) can pull out of the archives. Thrown together by fate, our unlikely fellow travelers find themselves in a rental car with a stranger named Vic, who promptly gets everyone busted for marijuana possession. Next Sarah and Ben's train uncouples in midtrip. They're drenched by a rainstorm. They slide across the floor of a Kmart in North Carolina. They wind up on a chartered bus full of retirees headed for Miami. Our reluctant hero has to do a striptease in a gay bar.

"You wanna be on your deathbed saying you lived by all the rules?" the free spirit asks the rattled straight man -- perhaps for the 2000th time in movie history. But now there's an unintended irony in the question: Forces of Nature also lives by all the rules; it goes through all the motions without moving us very much.

Lawrence, who wrote the kiddy comedy Life With Mikey and the upcoming remake of The Out-of-Towners, has gathered spare parts from the screwball comedies of the '30s and recent road pictures like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and bolted them together with the mock cynicism of the '90s. On the eve of his wedding, for instance, Ben finds that almost no one believes much in marriage -- not his ailing grandfather, who says that Grandma "looked like Tolstoy"; not two septuagenarians on a train, who say they're happy for the first time because they're finally having an extramarital affair with each other; not even the mismatched parents of the prospective bride (Maura Tierney) and groom, who are waiting none too happily for Ben's arrival in Savannah.

Sarah has some predictable problems of her own, it turns out. She's been married twice, both times to con men, and her ten-year-old is in emotional limbo.

It's too much to ask that Bullock give off the madcap heat of someone like Carole Lombard, or that Lawrence infuse his dialogue with Dudley Nichols' wit, or that director Hughes move along at the thrilling pace of a Hawks or a Sturges. But anyone who forks out seven (or more) bucks for a movie ticket deserves more than a bit of hip attitude, a pair of pretty faces, and a raft of TV-sitcom jokes.

Unfortunately Bullock and Affleck don't strike many sparks or produce many yocks. The star of Speed and the coauthor-costar of Good Will Hunting may be hot properties these days, but they're not exactly built for comedy. Perched on the roof of a passenger train, they happily howl at the sunset, and the moment evaporates like mist from a window. Stuck together in a gaudy motel room, they fail to mine the tenderness or the absurdity of their plight. We get the sense that we are watching not characters in the making but movie stars on display. That's a pleasure in itself, of course, but one that doesn't last. By the time you get to the end of this plodding and predictable rehash, you feel as worn out as an old movie plot.

Forces of Nature.
Directed by Bronwen Hughes. Screenplay by Marc Lawrence. Starring Sandra Bullock, Ben Affleck, and Maura Tierney.

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Bill Gallo

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