Pretty Vacant

Only one week after lizards crawled across the country's screens in Godzilla and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, along comes the bloated Hope Floats, toting a barge full of saccharine sentimentality and bogus emotions.

Let's start with the title, two words whose juxtaposition is neither evocative nor yielding of any clear sense. (Okay, there is a forgettable reference somewhere in the film, a nauseating droplet of hokum: "Give hope a chance to float up. It will, too.") The title's meaninglessness is actually appropriate, however unintentionally.

The opening sequence, easily the best five minutes in the film, takes place on your basic daytime talk show. Toni Post (Kathy Najimy doing a spot-on parody of Ricki Lake) brings Birdee Pruitt (Sandra Bullock) on-stage for a makeover. But the makeover is just a cover: Birdee is really there to be told that her husband (Michael Pare) and her best friend (Rosanna Arquette) are having an affair. The scene sets up an intriguing question: How would it really feel to have your most personal tragedy exploited in front of a national TV audience?

This question quickly becomes little more than a weak running gag, as we segue into a limp Birdee Doesn't Live Here Anymore. The heroine packs up her nine-year-old daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman) and heads home to Smithville, Texas. She moves in with her mama, crotchety but wise Ramona Calvert (Gena Rowlands). Papa (James N. Harrell), diminished by both Alzheimer's and a stroke, has been sent away to a nursing home. Ramona, the ultimate kook, has kept alive his taxidermy work. This bit of forced whimsy suggests a number of morbidly interesting possibilities the movie never explores.

Meanwhile Birdee is immediately confronted with the plight of the discarded wife. Because she got married fresh out of high school, where she was homecoming queen (her future husband was king), and because she has never had to learn a skill, she finds herself totally adrift, with only Mama's gruff but loving advice to guide her. Hope Floats is set in the present, yet Mama can come up with only one solution for her daughter's predicament: Find a new guy. Birdee, in a rare moment of insight, is more interested in getting a job, but it has never occurred to her she doesn't know how to do anything.

She expresses an interest in photography -- a field whose requirements are fuzzier in most people's minds than, say, computer programming or medicine, therefore making it more plausible to an audience. We see lots of scenes of Birdee taking pictures -- watch the Birdee -- but we almost never see the pictures themselves. This sole interest eventually disappears as the script contrives a romance for her. (Just as well, actually. As it turns out, Birdee can't even learn how to run one of those one-hour developing machines.)

The man in question is Justin Matisse (Harry Connick, Jr.), who has carried a torch for Birdee since high school. For much of the film his crush seems to be based on how pretty she is -- which makes sense, because there's nothing else to respond to. But eventually he gives a speech that feels pasted in, as though to refute the notion that his feelings are entirely shallow; he remarks on that special "fire" she had in high school and how she's lost sight of it but he can still see it within her.

From the evidence in the film, any fire Birdee ever had must have burned at a pretty low candlepower. She apparently went through school in some sort of anointed daze. It's barely a decade past graduation, but she can't remember any of her classmates and doesn't realize that all the girls hated her guts.

It's never clear just how Justin represents an improvement over hubby. Besides repeatedly telling Birdee how pretty she is and dropping gems of clunky folk wisdom such as "Dancin's just a conversation between two people. Talk to me," Justin's main way of relating to her is to shush her whenever she balks at his romantic attentions.

All this might be interesting if there were some irony to it. Or if the film were an expose of the standard unrealistic story convention by which everyone has some hidden value that will be made apparent to the audience. Birdee could have been a tragic figure: What do we do with the fading beauty queen who has no other apparent qualities? How do we affirm her human worth?

In the eyes of director Forest Whitaker and screenwriter Steven Rogers, the answer is facile: Simply find another condescending guy who will treat her like a porcelain doll. If you look like Sandra Bullock, why bother with a vocation or an education or even a personality?

Hope Floats.
Directed by Forest Whitaker. Written by Steven Rogers. Starring Sandra Bullock, Harry Connick, Jr., Gena Rowlands, Mae Whitman, and Michael Pare.


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