It’s not a little creepy that airplane crashes are providing fodder for popular feature films these days (see Fearless, Random Hearts, and Final Destination). But it’s also no surprise, given how hugely they loom in the popular, mass-mediated imagination, as a sign of fate and the lack of control anyone might have over his or her life. Still, as a route to conventional movie romance, airplane crashes are just a bit preposterous (ask Harrison Ford). The primary function of the crash appears to be that it provides survivors with the chance to reevaluate their lives, rethink their ambitions and values, or do good in the world. Or, in more mundane movie-plot terms, characters who suffer from airplane crashes are then prodded to seek life-affirming romance.
It may be that, at some point in its concept-to-product trajectory, Bounce was less conventional than it has turned out to be. Granted, it was probably never as acerbic and wondrously strange as writer-director Don Roos’s first feature, The Opposite of Sex, but then, he’s said (in Entertainment Weekly, so it must be true) that he wanted specifically to make a “straight” movie to avoid being “ghettoized” for his “gay” work, namely, his well-received scripts for Boys on the Side and Single White Female, as well as The Opposite of Sex.
Bounce is that straight movie, in more ways than one. Its straightness is more than a matter of het-romance. Bounce is straight in the sense that it stars Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow, and does not include Opposite of Sex-style bitchiness, much less wily jokes about masturbation, Hollywood morality, and the Planet Maturia. It’s also straight in the sense that it delivers to formulaic romance expectations: the two beautiful leads meet, fall in love, fight and make up, and there’s never a doubt during all this that they are fated to be together: as male lead says to female lead, he’s looking for a “last call of the day” (um, blecch). And it’s straight in the sense that, aside from the above awful line and the fact that he appears to be stalking her (more on that little plot point below), these two characters are going through familiarly bland motions: someone has to, it might as well be them.
Such adherence to straight conventions, however, is Bounce‘s draggiest, least interesting aspect. That is to say, when it does veer even slightly from the line most obviously in the secondary characters it becomes more interesting, but definitely not a straight romance. The plot is more or less what you’d imagine for a movie starring such Hollywood anointeds. As Buddy Amaral, a smooth-talking LA-based ad exec, Affleck looks very pretty in Giorgio Armani, and as Abby, the mother of two young boys, Paltrow is lovely and lilting as ever, even if she is dressed (relatively) down, in brown hair and blue jeans. At their initial encounter, he’s a recovering alcoholic and womanizer, and she’s recovering from the year-ago death of her wonderfully devoted husband Greg (Tony Goldwyn). But I’m getting ahead of myself: the movie actually begins that year before, at O’Hare, where flights are surprise delayed. Buddy’s talking his way into the bed of a Dallas exec (Natasha Henstridge) he’s just met in the airport bar, when his progress is briefly interrupted by Greg’s distracting and earnest nice-guyness. Yadda yadda.
The upshot is that Buddy gives his ticket home to Greg, who’s anxious to get back to his Wife-And-Kids. The plane crashes. Buddy feels guilty and drinks to excess. His breakdown - meant to signal that he does have a conscience, despite all prior evidence to the contrary is marked by the film’s one truly obnoxious and weird moment: after months of hiding out and drinking in his gorgeous beachfront home, Buddy attends a Clio Awards ceremony, where his advertising firm is honored for its cynically corny, self-ennobling we-honor-the-dead campaign for Infinity Airlines (the very airline that should be sorry because it “crashed the plane,” as Buddy puts it while watching the ads on TV at home). Drunk when he steps up to accept the award, Buddy says what’s on what’s left of his mind, upsetting the La-La-Land natives and getting himself trucked off to a Palm Springs rehab center. On his release, Buddy finds his non-partying, business-focused life profoundly unfulfilling, and so he decides to track down Greg’s widow, to “make sure she’s okay.”
Buddy’s journey to emotional health (represented by his eventual relationship with Abby, of course), is fraught with dully predictable plot devices and leavened by occasionally witty observations from his assistant and fellow recovering addict, Seth (Johnny Galecki, excellent in Roseanne and The Opposite of Sex). At first, the obnoxious and insightful Seth entertainingly slaps down Buddy’s smarty-pants, class-based self-delusions, but he’s soon reduced to the more routine role of gay sidekick, soon serving only to root on his boss’s relationship with the endearingly fumbly real estate lady. (Sigh: this reduction is apparently an effect of the editing suggestions from the Miramax people, who, according to Roos, were bound and determined to cut back on all non-Benneth scenes, including those featuring Galecki and an airline employee played by Jennifer Gray, on screen for about five minutes total.)
Abby’s new gig, which she has apparently taken up due to her sudden single-motherhood, provides Buddy with a convenient way to meet her, as he “happens” by a building she’s ineptly trying to sell. Because his partner Jim (Joe Morton, most definitely from another planet here, as the token black character in this movie’s LA) is looking to expand their ad-biz into a larger building, Buddy secretly throws Abby a prime deal, which she handles amazingly well; in turn she invites him to a Dodgers game (whatta gal), and from there, it’s clear what will happen. the only catch is the same one that plagued David Duchovny in Bonnie Hunt’s Return to Me: Buddy knows who Abby is and why he’s “accidentally” met her, but she knows nothing. Bounce actually underlines this knowledge differential, by showing Buddy as he watches Abby from a distance, sitting in his car, lurking across the street, arranging the real estate deal for her without telling her how or why: His manipulations might be understood as well-intentioned and once the wheels are in motion, so to speak inadvertent, but I can also understand her horror when she finds out that he did indeed know her dead husband.
One of the film’s many conventions is that Abby has a loyal and wise (and not as pretty as Abby) Best Friend who advises her to forgive herself for Greg’s death and to move on, for the sake of her children, and to accept Buddy even if he’s imperfect or, more to the point, not-Greg. Slightly less conventional is Buddy’s buddy, Jim, who turns out to be a Not Very Good Friend, more interested in preserving their business than in Buddy’s emotional health. I suppose this might excuse Buddy’s generally bad behavior, his inability to fess up, though I think the more apparent reason is that if he told Abby who he was, the movie would be over, since the primary straight-romance convention is that when the couple commits, the movie is over. And so, Buddy puts off telling Abby the truth about his initial interest in her, so you can observe them falling in love and spending quality mommy-and-daddy-time with her two precious sons. As per formula, you worry. Oh dear, what will happen when the other shoe drops?
It’s hard to say precisely why this sort of melodrama is appealing, or rather, to whom it appeals. Surely, watching an on-screen version of the off-screen chemistry between two attractive and famous young people has a certain allure, but watching Entertainment Tonight or reading People magazine offers at least as much pleasure, and for considerably less investment. The film’s overt manipulations aren’t so awful in and of themselves: at least, you might say, it’s upfront about the games it’s playing. And this may be the most salient and saddest observation offered by Bounce, that the games in non-ghettoized movies are by definition obvious, predictable, and dull dull dull.