Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Twisting in the Wind

By Hadley Hury

MARCH 29, 1999:  Approached as an illustrative intersection of contemporary film industry standards, mass marketing, and other trend lines of popular culture, the road-trip romantic comedy Forces of Nature is not without interest or moments of enjoyment. Approached as a film which clearly presumes itself heir to the grand tradition of the madcap comedies of the ’30s and early ’40s (such as Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth or Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story), it can be frustrating, irritating, and as some of our grandmothers used to say, “a sad comment” — either on Hollywood’s current aesthetic/commercial formula or on our society’s values and attention span. Though better than most of its generic peers, it is essentially about marketable stars and a pop-music soundtrack. The scenes have the texture and brevity of music-video snippets stitched with dialogue that more often than not plays like arch improvisation or carefully, cutely crafted soundbites. Forces of Nature subscribes to the notion that many adult and nearly all young-adult audiences can no longer tolerate emotional or intellectual demands that take them beyond the familiar millennial poles of ironic fluff and shallow sentimentality. It suggests that, even in comedy, we are not to be trusted with scene development beyond the length of the parenthetically guitar-twanged vignettes of a Seinfeld episode.

Forces of Nature does have its share of laughs, and at least one half of its leading couple (Ben Affleck) pulls out a sly, interesting, well-rounded comic performance. The film is scripted by Marc Lawrence and relies heavily on cliché, and it is directed in compatible manner by Bronwen Hughes, whose ideas of lyricism and whimsy seem primarily composed of computer-enhanced sunsets, computer-generated hailstones, wind machines, and snow-like flakes that eddy about the characters as they move though their vignettes, often in stagey poses and choreographed slow-motion. The director’s allegiance to an MTV worldview aside, Forces of Nature’s predominant cinematography, by Elliot Davis, is interesting, eloquent, and lush.

The soundtrack, though perfectly all right, has the merest connection to what’s happening in the film and, when Hughes does try to deploy it as comic or emotional motif, the results are heavyhanded, sophomoric, and unintentionally trivializing. Sexual attraction is always announced by a downbeat and a few bars of heavy-bass R&B; soulfulness is assigned reverb ballads. (So much for the comedy’s level of tonal shading, character development, and wit.)

Affleck plays Ben, who is going to Savannah to be married, when he meets Sarah (Sandra Bullock) on the flight from New York to Georgia. When the plane’s take-off is perilously aborted, Ben and Sarah decide to ride to Savannah together in a rented car. A typical screwball series of misadventures befalls them as, of course, well-to-do, prudently civilized Ben and nonconformist Sarah — who sports a long resume of stopgap jobs and injudiciously chosen men — find themselves attracted to one another.

Will Ben, by the time they reach Savannah, call off his marriage? Will Sarah win back the love of the 10-year-old son whom she has not seen in more than two years? With an actress in the role of Sarah who might transcend the shallow material as Affleck does — with intelligent subtlety, an actor’s sense of credible comedy, and appealing charm — we might care.

Sandra Bullock is not that actress. In her over-indicating grimaces and in-your-face inflections, her frenetic movements, and over-emphatic hands, Sarah does indeed become one of the titular Forces of Nature — and it is not a pretty sight. The role (no doubt crafted, in some substantial degree, for her) encourages all her faults as an actress, and the whole is even more egregiously annoying than its parts. Watching Sandra Bullock with free license to play free-spirited! kooky! zany! quirky! — at full throttle — is a deeply wearying experience.

True Crime

Clint Eastwood has based True Crime, the 21st film he has directed, on the novel by Andrew Klavan. He also stars in the film, playing — in the tradition of his canon — an amoral loose cannon. Here, Eastwood is reporter Steve Everett, a veteran not only of the newsroom but of alcoholism and womanizing. In the course of the film, Everett loses his wife and small daughter because of his soulless serial affairs. He camouflages his emotions with self-deprecating, surly, tough-guy humor and has lots of cynical lines like “Everyone lies, pal. I’m just here to write it down” and “I don’t give a rat’s ass for the truth — all I’ve got is a nose” which Eastwood grinds out in his trademark sotto voce snarl. And, to gild the all-too-human character with just a bit of redemption in order to avoid a complete lack of audience sympathy, Everett follows his nose into an attempt to prevent an innocent man from being executed.

Unfortunately, this time out, Eastwood has pursued his interest in ambivalent male protagonists into a dead end. Everett never attains even anti-heroic stature; he’s weak and small, his sourness infects those around him, his pride in his non-belief is not a position of strength but of self-involvement and failure. He may have the number on the speciousness and sensationalism of much of today’s media, but his late-in-the-day rally to find the life-or-death truth of a story is far from salutary; it’s just another instance of orneriness. And because the central character doesn’t gel satisfactorily, neither can the film’s attempt at hybridizing Everett’s newsroom and bedroom shenanigans with issue-driven questions about capital punishment. True Crime lacks focus, for which it tries to compensate in its final third by a standard-issue race against the midnight execution clock.

The problem of the film is perfectly exemplified at the end by Everett’s car chase sequence. As the wrongly accused man (Isaiah Washington) is wheeled into the chamber for the lethal injection, the audience is expected to root for the guy who’s trying to get to the prison with last-minute evidence. It seems the crowning miscalculation that Everett, completely loaded after falling off the wagon that night and driving at 80 mph through city traffic, probably comes close to killing dozens of innocent people in order to prove one point he’s decided he cares about. This doesn’t come off as moral and dramatic complexity for the audience; it comes off as indulgent lunacy.

The film also shows less technical proficiency than we have seen before from the maker of Tightrope, A Perfect World, and the memorable, Oscar-winning Unforgiven. Perhaps aware that his character and storyline here are maddeningly stuck, Eastwood allows many scenes to play too long, almost listlessly searching for some kind of sensible, genuinely moving resolution that never comes.

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