“Hope Floats” doesn’t. A dreadfully dull, completely conventional story of a young wife’s recuperation from being unceremoniously dumped, this is a by-the-numbers bit of emotional calculation without a single fresh, original or offbeat move in its system, apart from a nifty opening sequence. Nonetheless, pic could stir up some business with a predominantly female audience since Sandra Bullock’s role represents a sympathetic extension of the sort of young Everywoman part with which she’s enjoyed her greatest successes.
This first produced screenplay by Steven Rogers — who has several more projects upcoming with such femme stars as Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts and Jodie Foster — fairly wallows in received notions about romantic disappointment, small-town charm, female cattiness and never-to-be-forgotten first loves, all of which are boldfaced and underlined by Forest Whitaker’s drippingly sincere direction and a ceaseless cascade of two dozen hit-the-desired-emotion-on-the-head pop tunes.
Although it plays out a bit implausibly, pre-credits sequence is disarmingly clever and creates considerable promise that is all too quickly dashed. On a trashy Chicago audience participation TV show, a dishy blonde (an unbilled Rosanna Arquette) reveals to the nation that she is having an affair with her best friend’s husband. The unsuspecting friend, Birdie Pruitt (Bullock), is then led out before the crowd to be confronted with the news, which is confirmed on-the-air by hubby Bill (Michael Pare).
While she is too stunned to react right away, the end result is that the humbled Birdie and her young daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman) head back to Mom’s hometown of Smithville, Texas, to move in with Ramona (Gena Rowlands), Birdie’s mother. Naturally, Ramona is the local eccentric, a fanatical taxidermist who has festooned the house with bizarre stuffed animals.
Embarrassed by the fact that the entire town has seen her humiliated on TV, Birdie mainly stays at home moping about in her pajamas, earning her no end of prescription taunts from her no-nonsense mother. Dad, for his part, has Alzheimer’s disease and is parked at a old folks’ home.
Birdie’s current low ebb puts her former local celebrity in sharp relief. “Once upon a time your mama knew what it meant to shine,” Birdie points out to Bernice, and one person who remembers her glittering reign as the homecoming “Queen of Corn” is handyman Justin Matisse (Harry Connick Jr.), a dream boat who happens to have been the first fellow to kiss Birdie lo those many years ago, still feels about her the way he did in high school and, miraculously, is still available.
With absolutely no obstacles in the way of their getting together, dramatic tension never enters the equation. So the film’s inordinate running time — which is lengthened considerably by a large collection of the slowest dissolves seen since the heyday of George Stevens — is taken up by Birdie’s awkward attempts to find work, her mishap-filled job trying to run a one-hour photo processing machine, Justin’s very slow courtship dance and some difficult moments when Bill comes back to attend a funeral. Ending gives Birdie the chance to utter the immortal, title-explaining line, “Just give hope a chance to float up, and it will.”
Pacing is exceedingly lethargic, dialogue is corny, and film’s incidents and emotions are so programmed that surprise or glimmers of imagination never appear on the horizon. Notions expressed here are strictly of the greeting card variety , and songs wallpapered across the action rep an o.d. of manipulative sentimentality.
All the same, Bullock, in her first outing as an exec producer, shows her proven instincts for selecting parts that suit her, and a certain portion of the audience that loved her in “While You Were Sleeping,” particularly, will succumb to her role here as a somewhat older character, now responsible for a young child while still looking for Mr. Right in the American heartland. Viewers willing to be led by the nose into sniffles territory will find some of what they’re looking for in “Hope Floats.”
Bullock and producer Lynda Obst picked a strong behind-the-scenes team, including lenser Caleb Deschanel, editor Richard Chew, production designer Larry Fulton and composer Dave Grusin, all of whom possess plenty of extra talent that goes unused here. Same goes for the cast, members of which are mostly asked to do down-home shtick.