Nov 22, 2000 at 12:00 am

As actors, Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow have been skating along for so long on glib charm that their complex performances in Bounce come as a bit of a shock. Instead of simply grinning and glowing their way through a movie, this duo actually dig in and emotionally invest in these parts, and the result is some of their best work since Chasing Amy and Flesh and Bone, respectively.

A romance born from unexpected tragedy (like a 20-something Random Hearts), Bounce is also shockingly conventional, coming as it does from writer-director Don Roos, whose black comedy, The Opposite of Sex, took every cherished romantic tradition imaginable and turned it inside out. As a screenwriter, Roos was also responsible for Boys on the Side and the utterly useless Diabolique remake, and Bounce is very much in that vein: There’s the hint of something risqué going on, but nothing flies too far afield from what’s expected.

On a business trip to snowy Chicago, slick advertising executive Buddy Amaral (Affleck) finds himself struck with the Christmas spirit: He gives a first-class ticket on the last flight back to Los Angeles to Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn), a failed playwright anxious to return to his family. When the plane crashes, Buddy spirals into the kind of existential crisis which can’t be cured by an effective ad campaign.

That loss is felt even more acutely by Abby Janello (Paltrow). A year after the accident, she’s a widow with two small boys trying to make ends meet as a real estate agent. She senses something odd in the attractive man checking out a property, but can’t know how Amaral fits into the tragic circumstances of her life.

Bounce is about two people lying to each other in order to find what they need, but the revelation of secrets is only half the story. Roos has a real gift for pithy dialogue, such as Abby’s response to family members who urge her to bounce back from Greg’s death. Bouncing, she explains, is “like crashing, but you get to do it over and over again.”

These flashes of insight compensate somewhat for Bounce’s problems (such as sluggish subplots) and even manage the near-impossible: to make Buddy and Abby’s complex attraction and dependence dance resonate beyond the well-publicized personal histories of the actors embodying them.

E-mail Serena Donadoni at [email protected].