A Sweet Reprieve Review: 'Hope Floats' is bathed in suds and self-conscious wackiness, but smart writing and sharp performances keep it from getting too bubbly.


"Hope Floats," an idiosyncratic romance starring Sandra Bullock, presents anyone recently dragged to "Deep Impact" or "Godzilla" with that priceless piece of cultural currency during the testosterone-driven summer season: The Chit.

A date movie of the first order, "Hope Floats" provides perfect compensation for anyone who has dutifully done time at any number of action pictures in recent weeks. If it succumbs to the sugary traps endemic to the genre and occasionally lapses into being too self-consciously wacky, "Hope Floats" still manages to inject more originality than usual into the hearts-and-flowers format.

To call "Hope Floats" a "chick flick" is to ignore those countless romantics of the male persuasion, among them Forest Whitaker, who has directed this film with his now-signature flair for delivering good, clean, soapy fun.

As he did with the 1993 romantic hit "Waiting to Exhale," Whitaker presents a relatively ho-hum story with lovely visual touches. And Bullock holds the film's center with her own signature down-to-earth appeal.

Bullock plays Birdee Calvert, a former prom queen from tiny Smithville, Texas, who married the quarterback ("we practically left town on a float," she recalls) and moved to Chicago to live the perfect life all former prom queens live.

"Hope Floats" opens as that perfect life is falling apart: Birdee is informed on a tabloid talk-show that her husband is having an affair with her best friend.

In short order Birdee packs up her daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman), points the car south and returns to Smithville and her dotty taxidermist mother (Gena Rowlands), who makes purses out of armadillos and hats out of road-kill.

While Birdee tries to figure out her future, her past keeps coming back to bite her: The losers she ignored in high school take evil pleasure in telling her they saw her on TV; her mother, never a nurturer, still refuses to coddle her; and an old schoolmate, Justin Matisse (Harry Connick, Jr.) keeps hanging around with bouquets and bedroom eyes.

Meanwhile, Bernice must cope with starting a new school and incurring the wrath of the class bully, Big Dolores.

The plot of "Hope Floats" couldn't be more obvious if it were riding in the Corn Queen parade, and its cast of Southern eccentrics is at times gratingly goofy, but that doesn't detract from the movie's charms (cute-monitors already bridling at the Connick character's name can rest assured that it pays off in a funny joke during the film's conclusion).

Thanks to Steven Rogers' intelligent writing and Whitaker's tasteful direction, boilerplate scenes ring with authenticity and even a modicum of grace: when Birdee's ill father leads her in a wordless dance, for example, and an otherwise inconsequential

conversation between Justin and Birdee's nephew Travis.

In fact the only problem with "Hope Floats," aside from its self-conscious wackiness (Birdee's childhood home looks like the Addams Family by way of Pippi Longstocking, and a dance sequence to the Temptations is an eye-roller), is believing Bullock as a washed-up anything.

Everyone keeps telling Birdee how terrible she looks, and she herself insists that she's lost the "audacious" beauty that used to turn heads. But no amount of shapeless bathrobes, red eyes or bad hair days can mask the fact that Bullock is just plain stunning.

Still, such inconsistencies won't matter to fans of the delicious melodrama offered by "Hope Floats," which in addition to romantic interludes at a real Texas dance hall and an old drive-in theater, features a bonus death scene and a child's histrionics at being separated from a parent. (Whitman, as the precocious Bernice, and Cameron Finley, who plays the sweetly odd Travis, deserve praise for wonderfully straightforward performances.)

For filmgoers who like their suds served up with humor, visual warmth, country-inflected pop music and a pleasantly accomplished cast of players, "Hope Floats" is a Chit Flick worth playing.

'Hope Floats'

Starring Sandra Bullock, Harry Connick Jr., Gena Rowlands

Directed by Forest Whitaker

Rated PG-13 (thematic elements)

Released by 20th Century Fox

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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