Bruce Fretts
October 06, 1995 AT 04:00 AM EDT

With her cleft chin, knockabout manner, and penchant for blue-collar roles, Sandra Bullock seems more like a tomboy next door than a Hollywood glamour girl. But the romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping established her as a bona fide movie star. Its $81 million box office success proved she could carry a movie without a Sly- or Keanu-size costar. But it was also a step back — all the way back to the unintoxicating Love Potion #9 (1992). Both are high-concept farces in which she plays a lonely loser suddenly faced with more than one potential husband. And neither film’s much fun.

But looking back over Bullock’s career on video, these are masterpieces next to the obscurities A Fool and His Money (1988) and Me and the Mob (1994), which have recently surfaced on video with Bullock billed more prominently than her token girlfriend roles merit. Another early effort, the coming-of-age drama Who Shot Pat? (1990), is notable only for its glimpse of Bullock’s buttocks.

She ascended to big-studio moviemaking with Potion, though you wouldn’t know it from the film’s amateurish feel. Bullock and Tate Donovan (TV’s Partners) play homely scientists who stumble on a formula that makes them unspeakably attractive to the opposite sex. Under the mirthless direction of Dale Launer (writer of Ruthless People), Potion is as ugly as its characters. Luckily for Bullock, she’s barely recognizable, with frizzy hair and gag buckteeth. Had anyone remembered her inept work, she might never have been cast in a comedy again.

Potion turned out to be box office poison, as did two small-scale dramas in which Bullock had supporting roles, The Thing Called Love (1993) and Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993). As one of a group of struggling country singers (including the heavy-lidded River Phoenix) in Peter Bogdanovich’s plodding Thing, Bullock proved only that she’s no Meryl Streep; her alleged Alabama accent is all over the map. But the underrated Hemingway showed that Bullock could command the screen with as winning a presence as old pros Robert Duvall and Richard Harris. When Bullock’s twentysomething waitress flirts with Duvall’s Cuban codger, her understated charm renders a potentially skin-crawling situation genuinely poignant.

It took two action hits to give Bullock real muscle in Hollywood. In Demolition Man (1993), she made something out of a nothing role as a 21st-century cop who helps Sylvester Stallone hunt down supercriminal Wesley Snipes. Bullock even makes stilted lines like ”I find this lack of stimulus to be truly disappointing” sound natural. (To appreciate the magnitude of this achievement, look at how little Diane Lane did with a virtually identical part in Stallone’s Judge Dredd.) And once Bullock was cast in the superior thriller Speed (1994), there was no stopping her. Her chemistry with Keanu Reeves turned out to be more explosive than any bomb Dennis Hopper’s terrorist could cook up. She upstaged Reeves’ buzz cut, Hopper’s manic cackling, and Jan De Bont’s sleek direction to become the most beloved bus driver since Ralph Kramden.

The mass-transit motif continued with her turn as a Chicago token clerk in Sleeping, but this star vehicle is as creaky and mechanical as the el itself. It has a promising setup: Bullock is mistaken for the fiancee of a comatose man (Peter Gallagher) she’s admired from afar. She plays along, only to find herself more attracted to the man’s bland brother (Bill Pullman). Why? Because that situation starts the plot’s gears cranking. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t seem to care that these two have little in common aside from a passion for rocking chairs.

Sleeping strands Bullock with a cartoonish supporting cast, including Peter Boyle as Pullman’s blustery dad and Michael Rispoli as Bullock’s crass goombah neighbor. The pedestrian style of director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings) isn’t as glaring on the small screen (the film looks as if it were made for TV), but Randy Edelman’s twinkly score is no less grating when heard on home speakers.

Yet the biggest problem with Sleeping may be Bullock. Giggly one minute, eyes glistening with tears the next, she seems stricken with Meg Ryan Syndrome: the overestimation of one’s own cuteness. It’s a fine line between coy and cloying, and Bullock crosses it here. She’s sticky-sweet enough to send even the most sugar-starved viewer into a diabetic coma. Wake up, Sandra — your last name’s Bullock, not Dee. While You Were Sleeping: C- Love Potion #9: D The Thing Called Love: C Wrestling Ernest Hemingway: B+ Demolition Man: C+ Speed: A-

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