March 26, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

As the reluctant romantic hero of Forces of Nature, Ben Affleck radiates a sweetness that can’t be faked. It has something to do with the comic contrast between his frazzled boyish eagerness and his size — the rangy, athletic frame topped by a head so long and lean and noble it might have been crafted by a Roman sculptor. Attractive people often use their looks to lord it over everyone else, but Affleck does just the opposite. He seems to be apologizing for how handsome he is, as if, like the young Cary Grant, he knew that it was destined to win him more attention than he could possibly handle. He’s got the appearance of a shark, but his soft, shy, slightly panicky voice and ingratiating class president’s grin tell you that he’s too intimidated, too decent, to act like a shark.

In Forces of Nature, Affleck plays Ben, a 30ish yupster scrambling to make it from New York to Savannah in time for his wedding. Sandra Bullock is Sarah, the sassy, slightly unhinged, compulsively irresponsible ”free spirit” in raccoon mascara who becomes his impromptu road companion after their crippled airliner fails to make it off the runway. ”Do you work for Hallmark?” she asks, peering at the laptop computer on which he’s cluelessly attempting to compose his wedding vows. Bullock knows how to make a line like that sting (even if the jape itself is standard issue), but a little later, when Sarah learns that Ben earns his living as a book-jacket copywriter, she lovingly quotes a line he wrote for one of her favorite volumes. I don’t mean to carp, but seriously: Who on earth remembers jacket copy? This is an example of lazy, whatever-works-for-the-moment screenwriting, and it’s the sort that makes Forces of Nature a shallow, synthetic experience.

Sarah and Ben end up bopping from car to train to wacky tour bus to all-night Kmart to the inevitable motel room. Will they fall into bed? Sarah appears more than willing, but Ben, desperate to remain faithful to his fiancee (Maura Tierney), keeps fighting the call of his hormones. It’s a battle he wins a little too easily. Screwball comedy, at its fizzy, manic best, spins out of the discombobulation caused by sexual desire, but Forces of Nature domesticates and neuters the form. The movie would like to be a contemporary reworking of It Happened One Night, but it feels more like Planes, Trains & Automobiles with an added layer of mechanized sitcom flirtation. A wisecracking comedy without wisecracks (the bare-bones script is by Marc Lawrence), it reduces its appealing stars to lamely bantering ciphers who go through the tug-of-war motions of love-hate attraction not out of any sparkly erotic bond but because there wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t.

Affleck, who has the fast-break charm you want in a screwball hero, is so cuddly and winsome that you keep rooting for him to rebel in ways that go beyond what the movie has planned for him. The director, Bronwen Hughes, works with all the joyful imagination of a traffic cop. She’s a lot better at coming up with snazzy ways to photograph weather — slow-motion hail, a drenching hurricane — than she is at capturing the storminess of love. At one point, Sarah persuades Ben to do a striptease at a roadside gay bar so that they can rustle up some cash. The scene turns out to be the most repressed comic striptease ever filmed. Sarah gets up on stage with Ben (for no apparent reason other than to reassure us that he’s straight), and as he gingerly removes a few items of clothing, it’s not just our hero who’s embarrassed by the beefcake posing. It’s Affleck himself who seems abashed at his own stardom.

Throughout the journey, Ben runs into older couples who toss off comic horror stories of marriage — pungent little riffs designed to tweak his idealized vision of love. These satirical bits feel as if they’d been pasted in from a different screenplay, and they give the movie a momentary lift. Forces of Nature has the structure of a madcap romantic chase without the wiggy, busting-out freedom. If the surprise ending had been set up better, it might have tingled with romantic warmth, but instead it leaves the audience feeling numbly betrayed. We have no idea why these characters have just spent two days with each other, and neither, apparently, do they. C

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