Charismatic leads, snazzy visuals and a pleasingly unpredictable plot are among the chief selling points of “Forces of Nature,” an extremely enjoyable neo-screwball comedy about attractive opposites on the road. With Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck providing marquee allure, and no comparable competition in the current marketplace, pic is poised to attract enough adult ticketbuyers for a long-legged B.O. run. Only impediment is an ending that, while dramatically sound and emotionally persuasive, may generate some disapproving word of mouth.
Affleck once again demonstrates his winning ability to play against his good looks in a self-effacing comic turn as Ben, a button-down “dust-jacket copywriter” who’s just a few days away from marrying the beautiful Bridget (Maura Tierney, of TV’s “NewsRadio”). But his carefully laid plans for happily-ever-aftering begin to spin out of control when he tries to fly from New York to his fiancee’s family home in Savannah.
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While seated next to Sarah (Bullock), a mischievous free spirit, Ben is helplessly horrified as their plane blows an engine and skids off the runway. The experience is sufficiently traumatic to convince Ben — not a happy flier under the best of circumstances — to complete his journey via ground transportation. Not surprisingly, Sarah tags along for the ride, and they are forced to take several detours on their circuitous journey, allowing plenty of time for verbal sparring and slow-simmering chemistry.
That they repeatedly are rerouted or roadblocked becomes a running gag with a surprising amount of mileage. Ben wonders aloud if the many mishaps — culminating in a fire at a telegraph office where he hoped to pick up wired money — are part of some cosmic, or divine, intervention. “I think I’ll just sit here,” he says, “and wait for the locusts to come.
But Sarah is not so easily given to despair. In a scene that’s likely to become an instant classic, she convinces Ben to raise money for their continued travel by stripping for dollars at a small-town gay bar. The interlude plays out more zestfully, and less offensively, than might seem possible.
Director Bronwen Hughes (“Harriet the Spy”) gives her two leads ample time and space to bring out the best in each other, and surrounds them with craftily chosen supporting players. (Steve Zahn is a standout as Ben’s randy best friend). Better still, Hughes gracefully infuses the comedy with a sense of exuberance, often indulging in MTV-style visual flourishes that enhance the playful mood.
Credit cinematographer Elliot Davis and production designer Lester Cohen for making invaluable contributions. Some individual images — a slow-motion romp through a sudden hailstorm, an intimate confrontation at the center of a wind-tossed wedding party — manage the difficult feat of being at once strikingly beautiful and emotionally expressive while advancing the plot.
Owing almost as much to “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” as to classic ’30s romantic road movies, “Forces of Nature” takes a refreshingly intelligent approach to character development. Sarah turns out to be appreciably more complex than your standard-issue eccentric; her indefatigable vivacity is revealed as a disguise for not-so-quiet desperation. She’s on the road to Savannah for a reunion with her young son, whom she hasn’t seen in a couple of years, and to extract herself from the latest mess she has made of her life. The beauty of Bullock’s thoroughly engaging performance is the self-awareness she brings to her character’s madcap excesses.
Meanwhile, back at the fiancee’s family home, Bridget isn’t merely pining away for her husband-to-be while her parents (Blythe Danner, Ronny Cox) ignore the warning signs of an approaching hurricane to oversee preparations for a lavish wedding. Just as Ben is prodded by Sarah to have second thoughts about his marriage plans, Bridget considers the half-forgotten appeal of a former boyfriend (David Strickland) who’s still very much in love with her.
It’s no small measure of the pic’s generosity of spirit that Bridget comes across as no less attractive, and a good deal more stable, than the exciting eccentric who may steal her fiance’s heart. Tierney’s fine performance is everything it should be for the final scenes to provide such a satisfying payoff.
For all its wit and wackiness, “Forces of Nature” has a serious, even melancholy, undercurrent. This may not be what audiences expect, or even desire, but the risks taken by the filmmakers add substance to their divertissement. During the course of his travels with Sarah, Ben periodically questions the married couples he meets, hoping to find the secrets of long-term happiness. In the end, though, he has to find the answer for himself.