Hope Floats

Jun 3, 1998 at 12:00 am

That actress Sandra Bullock's Birdee Pruitt is meant to be a sympathetic character is readily apparent from the opening scene of Hope Floats. She is dragged blindfolded into a television studio set and humiliated before millions, when her husband Bill tells her that he and her best friend are having an affair. And she doesn't even take a moment to knock the hell out of either of them.

Bullock's collaboration with director Forest Whitaker is just as much a gleaming opportunity for her as it is for him. Bullock executive-produced her newest star vehicle, and for Whitaker, the man behind 1996's runaway hit Waiting to Exhale, it's a great chance to refine his hand at tragedy. His skills are well plied. With Birdee's return to her hometown of Smithville, Whitaker subtly conveys her life's disaster, focusing on the internal damage that wears on her by the day. Whitaker is a craftsman with the weeper, and that's exactly what he aims for.

Still, Birdee's is meant to be a story of triumph; and so, upon moving in with her mother Ramona (played by Gena Rowlands), she's soon attended on by hunk Justin Matisse (Harry Connick Jr.), a longtime admirer of hers. Ramona moves to hook up the potential couple in spite of Birdee's seeming trauma.

The conflicts of Hope Floats center around personal development. Birdee, a prom queen turned separated housewife, hasn't got the bearings to deal with Bill's sudden turn, and so succumbs to a walking catatonia. Meanwhile, most of Smithville's women delicately chide Birdee with observations on her televised moment of shame. Despite her personal debacle, they cannot look past their petty quarrels with the Birdee they recall and revile.

More than being a victory for the "high and mighty" Birdee, Hope Floats reveals director Whitaker at his restrained best. Working his wizardry with a trite script, Whitaker layers brilliant stylistic touches onto the narrative with a subtle hand. Who would have thought it: The gentle giant-actor turns master of the weepy melodrama?

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