Sandra Bullock reteams with screenwriter Marc Lawrence -- here making his directing debut -- on "Two Weeks Notice," an affable but undernourished romantic comedy that fails to match the freshness of the actress-producer and writer's previous collaboration, "Miss Congeniality."

Sandra Bullock reteams with screenwriter Marc Lawrence — here making his directing debut — on “Two Weeks Notice,” an affable but undernourished romantic comedy that fails to match the freshness of the actress-producer and writer’s previous collaboration, “Miss Congeniality.” Playing, respectively, the kind of klutzy-but-clever relationship misfit and charming cad they do best, Bullock and Hugh Grant are amusing and likable, but the chemistry between the leads remains uncertain; romance factor ignites only in the final scenes, and the shortage of real tension or conflict around the couple softens anticipation of their long-stalled union. The star pairing nonetheless should guarantee solid box office as the Warner release faces off against “Maid in Manhattan” for the holiday romantic comedy crown.

Grant plays millionaire New York real estate developer George Wade, an irresponsible playboy with a history of hiring — and bedding — female attorneys based on looks, not professional skills. When his latest hire screws up, George’s exasperated brother, Howard (David Haig), puts his foot down and insists he hire a qualified Ivy League graduate as the company’s chief counsel.

Enter impassioned environmental activist Lucy (Bullock), who tackles George on the company’s plans to demolish a Coney Island community center to build condos. Turning the confrontation into an impromptu interview, George offers Lucy the job. A principled idealist, she refuses at first, but George convinces her by promising to save the community center and place her in charge of the company’s discretionary funds, which she can channel into any cause she chooses.

Lucy excels at the job, not only shouldering professional responsibilities but also serving as George’s multitask minder, choosing his wardrobe, running interference with his bimbo girlfriends and even handling his divorce settlement. Despite his unreasonable demands on her time both in and out of office hours, Lucy warms to her high-maintenance British boss but balks at the idea of a career as a glorified personal assistant. She gives him two weeks notice, but George at first refuses to release her from her contract.

He finally relents on the condition she find an equally capable replacement, and ambitious young lawyer June (Alicia Witt) shows up for an unscheduled interview. Despite the attractive young woman’s attempts at flattery, Lucy is about to dismiss her due to lack of property-law experience when George steps in and hands her the job.

Barely acknowledging to herself the source of her discomfort, Lucy bristles with jealousy when June starts to blithely balance her professional duties with romantic aspirations as she works her charms on George. Lucy’s irritation blooms into anger when she learns George has reneged on his promise to save the community center, hastening her bitter exit from the company. While Lucy attempts to move on, returning to legal-aid work and compulsive eating, both she and George come to realize the extent of their feelings for each other. This prompts George to take uncharacteristically decisive action.

Lawrence — who also scripted the lackluster Bullock/Ben Affleck vehicle “Forces of Nature” — makes a capable enough transition to directing but lacks a firm grasp of pacing and rhythm, allowing the comedy to show signs of fatigue. His writing here is often witty, especially in Grant’s well-honed dialogue. But while both lead characters are appealing, and the prickly yet clearly magnetic dynamic between them seems to be there on paper, something never quite sparks.

Actor Mark Feuerstein reportedly shot a role as Lucy’s fellow environmentalist boyfriend, which survives only in one-sided phone conversations while he’s off on Greenpeace crusades. Perhaps the presence of a more dynamic external force impacting the development of Lucy and George’s relationship might have added texture.

The script’s other shortcoming is the dearth of engaging supporting characters. Aside from Dana Ivey and Robert Klein, who have some mildly amusing moments as Lucy’s liberal parents, other figures like flirtatious climber June; George’s humorless brother, Howard; or Tony (Dorian Missick), George’s driver, chess partner and expert on matters pertaining to women, yield little on the laugh meter.

Both leads can do this kind of role in their sleep and make the comedy far more entertaining than it might have been. Bullock creates a smart, headstrong woman with an awkward, often self-effacing side, keeping Lucy’s softness and sweetness in play without making her too fragile. Grant continues in the vein of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “About a Boy,” with another reprehensible but not unsympathetic Lothario, adding few new twists to his established screen persona, but coasting by on relaxed charisma.

Backed by the obligatory soundtrack of mellow, jazzy songs, the production is technically polished but visually flat. Veteran lenser Laszlo Kovacs’ camera only really comes to life in a sequence seemingly calculated to tap into post-Sept. 11 sentiment, in which Lucy and George fly by helicopter over New York, rhapsodizing about the Chrysler Building and the city’s many other architectural splendors.

Two Weeks Notice

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, NPV Entertainment, of a Fortis Films production. Produced by Sandra Bullock. Executive producers, Mary McLaglen, Bruce Berman. Co-producer, Scott Elias. Directed, written by Marc Lawrence.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Laszlo Kovacs; editor, Susan E. Morse; music, Pohn Powell; production designer, Peter Larkin; art director, Ray Kluga; set decorator, Leslie E. Rollins; costume designer, Gary Jones; sound (Dolby SRD, DTS, SDDS), Danny Michael; assistant director, Julie A. Bloom; casting, Ilene Starger. Reviewed at Warner Bros. screening room, New York, Dec.8, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Lucy Kelson - Sandra Bullock George Wade - Hugh Grant June Carter - Alicia Witt Ruth Kelson - Dana Ivey Larry Kelson - Robert Klein Meryl - Heather Burns Howard Wade - David Haig Tony - Dorian Missick

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