HOPE FLOATS (1998) 

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Sandra Bullock
Gena Rowlands
Harry Connick Jr.
Mae Whitman
Michael Paré
Rosanna Arquette
Cathy Najimy
Connie Ray
Cameron Finley

Forest Whitaker




Time: 114 mins.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama/Romance

Melodramas were once the cash cow of the film industry, giving the leading ladies of the day (Davis, Crawford, Stanwyck) complex roles that showed how strong women could be – given the restrictions of the time. HOPE FLOATS is a film in the same vein, though it never taps the strength of character needed to be truly entrancing. Bullock is innately likable, which is the only thing that saves this sorry, unoriginal weeper. What hampers this film from the get go is her passive, mopey behavior. Sure, life didn't exactly turn out like she hoped, but instead of watching a woman get back on the horse and turn her situation around we're forced to stand by while she retreats from life. Perhaps the more realistic outcome of being kicked in the teeth by circumstance, but not a journey that's interesting to sit through.

The story begins on a cruel note: Birdy (Bullock) learns on a national talk show that her husband, played by Pare, is having an affair with her best friend. Humiliated in front of the world and devastated by the break up of her marriage, she packs her daughter Bernice (Whitman) and their belongings into the family wagon and heads back to Smithville, the town where she grew up and was miss popularity. Unfortunately, now she's more of the town joke than the prom queen. All her high school "friends" are thrilled to see her taken down a few notches. Not that she was mean in high school, everything just always seemed to go her way. Which is the main reason why Birdy can't grasp what's happened to her. She thought she was a good wife and mother. What she discovers is that she's lost her true self in those roles.

This contributes to the film's major problem. Since Birdy doesn't know who she is anymore that makes it fairly difficult to create a compelling character for the audience to grab onto. We learn nothing about her past and see nothing of her marriage. There's no information about her at all, except some minor asides about her Smithville past. How are we supposed to care or root for a character who's a blank slate? Whitaker was obviously interested in showing how a woman who's lost everything, including her self worth, builds herself back up again. A concept that would make an interesting book, but as a film it becomes annoying and tiresome. There are some compelling moments between Birdy and her mother, played by the always amazing Gena Rowlands, and her and her daughter, but they are sandwiched in between too many scenes of her hiding from the world.

"People fall in love. They fall right back out. It happens all the time."

We're never given a good reason for her depression. Since we learn nothing about the marriage, it's hard to care that it's over. What about Bill is worth fighting for? Was she even happy? The story never illuminates any of these points, leaving us to wonder what all the strum and drang is for. Why would anyone want to stay with a man who cheated on them? Pare has a thankless role here. All we ever learn about his character is that he's no longer in love with Birdy and has fallen in love with someone else. We never learn why he left, except that Birdy's no longer the woman he once knew and loved. If that's all it takes, I think we're all in pretty big trouble. The film's focus is on her finding her future, yet I think a little trip into the past would have made the journey more involving.

What's worse is that Birdy is pathetic from the beginning of the film to the end. She eventually begins to live her life again (as much as one can in a small town), but we get nothing except resignation. It's not like she's determined to start over. She's practically forced to get a job and move on. If it were up to her, she'd never leave bed. Not exactly inspirational. It also doesn't make her seem like a very good mother. If the film has no faith in her, why should we? We're told she was once audacious and energetic, but that's pretty hard to believe given the creature we've been spending time with. How she attracts the attention of Justin, played by an incredibly hunky Harry Connick Jr., is beyond me. She's may be the prettiest girl around, but that's not much of a recommendation.

Why she tries to turn him away is a complete mystery. He's clearly the best thing this town has to offer. If I were a single mother with no real skills and a lackluster future, I'd grab hold and never let go. I don't care how depressed I was, I wouldn't turn down a roll in the hay with Connick for all the corn in Smithville. Their romance has some sweet moments, elevating the fun quotient quite a bit. Though not enough to save the film as a whole. It's not that Bullock doesn't try, she just isn't given much to do but sulk. Connick gives one of his deepest, sexiest and most charming performances to date, as the decent, fun-loving, honest home boy looking to make up for lost time. One can understand why Birdy is cautious. You don't want to trade in one loser for another. However, since this is the best part of this movie the tension becomes unbearable.

I have great admiration for Forest Whitaker as an actor, however, I don't quite think he's got the hang of directing. Much kudos are given to him for attempting to bring women's issues to the screen. I just wish he wasn't so heavy handed. HOPE FLOATS is an emotional roller coaster that has more downs than ups. Don't be fooled by the poster, this is more melodrama than romance. All of the actors, especially the three ladies – Rowlands, Bullock and Whitman – have some powerful and poignant moments. Unfortunately, they are book ended by a story that's unfilled and flat. There's nothing unique about these people, which is exactly the line the film's trying to sell. If it weren't for the star power involved this would have been a forgettable LIFETIME flick. As it stands, if you like the cast, you'll probably enjoy the outing well enough. However, the main hope it instilled in me was one for the end.

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