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Probably you’ve heard something about Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow’s now-faded off-screen romance. Or maybe you forgot, and it’s only now that you’re hazily remembering a picture from some magazine cover you saw once or some detail about their steamy love that you heard on an entertainment news show. Possibly you follow these things with a greater-than-average interest and, in fact, can give a detailed chronology of the rise and fall of their relationship featuring a description of the two times that Gwyneth, post-breakup, thanked her “good friend Ben Affleck” during awards acceptance speeches. But if, by some chance, you’d forgotten or never knew about their obsolete affair, the arrival of Bounce, their latest collaboration, in movie theaters nationwide, should have cured you of that. “Practically everyone knows the story by now,” no less an authority than CNN reported last week. “[Affleck and Paltrow] broke up almost two years ago and their ardor, once the stuff of burning headlines, cooled. But now they are sizzling again on the big screen.”

    

I’d like to say that I’ve never cared about the past, present or future of sizzle between these two actors; and there was a time when I could have said this and meant it. But now I can’t: Bounce coerced me into caring, at least for the ninety minutes I sat in the dark watching them method-act their way through it. Actually, I couldn’t help thinking that this was precisely what writer/director Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) intended for me to do. Although it manages to be moderately entertaining, Bounce has a distinctly pre-fab feel about it — it invents a set of characters, places them in a series of well-lit locations, and then tells an undeniably familiar love story: boy meets girl, boy screws things up, boy gets girl back. Undistracted by substance (the movie doesn’t provide much in the way of suspense, character development, sex or interesting cinematography), I was free for most of the hour and a half it took for the story to unfold to search the celebrities’ faces for signs of genuine lust. Will they be burning up the headlines with their undampened love again sometime soon?

    

The movie itself tells a gimmicky story about the love that improbably grows, between Affleck’s character, Buddy Amaral, and Paltrow’s character, Abby Janello. Buddy is an arrogantly successful, slick, hard-drinking and playboyish advertising salesman who, at the start of the movie, is trying to get back to L.A. from snowy Chicago. When his flight is delayed, he ends up at the airport bar, where he meets a flirty blond named Mimi and a half-raggedy writer type named Greg (played wonderfully by Tony Goldwyn). After a round or two of drinks, a little small talk and a fit of drunken horsing around with a video camera, Buddy breaks airline regulations and gives Greg, who’s also trying to get back to L.A. in the snowstorm, his boarding pass. The rest of the plot turns on the repercussions of Buddy’s gesture, which was borne of pure self-interest (if he stays in Chicago, he gets to sleep with Mimi). Greg’s plane goes down in flames shortly after take-off, killing all its occupants, and Buddy spirals out into a year-long, guilt-fed drinking binge. After he emerges from his stupor and subsequent rehab, he seeks out Greg’s widow Abby. He finds her financially and emotionally adrift, struggling to get by in her new job as a broker, still grieving her husband’s death. Thinking he’ll do some good by throwing a big real estate sales commission Abby’s way, Buddy never lets her know who he is or why he’s taken an interest in her. But of course, the two fall in love, and Buddy, whose main social skill is lying, holds on to his ugly secret longer than we in the audience think he ought to.

    

As the storyline speeds through more uninspired twists and turns than a Chubby Checker impersonator, Buddy and Abby re-enact a classic bad boy/good girl scenario. Whereas Buddy is a greedy, self-involved liar (whose transformation into a real Stand-Up Guy gives the movie its narrative structure), Abby is an excessively sweet but emotionally insecure waif-like thing: she’s the kind of woman who goes to great lengths to remove an embarrassing strip of toilet paper from another girl’s shoe. When they have sex, it’s mostly Buddy in charge, Abby spread about like a flower on the pillow below. Afterwards Abby just about apologizes for being slutty, half-expecting Buddy to dump her on the spot.

    

The film’s somewhat one-dimensional presentation of sexuality isn’t helped by the awkward speeches the assortment of characters insist on delivering throughout the movie. Men are naughty, these mini-speeches instruct, and women are well-behaved. “Guys screw up, that’s what they do” is one lesson that Abby’s best friend recites in the kitchen one day shortly after Buddy’s lying has been revealed. (“It’s in their manual,” she quips in pure women’s-magazine-speak, “right after ‘love your grill’ and ‘leave your socks on the floor.'”) And there are a few “I don’t know how women get so brave” orations, which, delivered by a man as superficial as Buddy, seem about as out of place as George W. Bush at a spelling bee.

    

Still, even after all that sexual stereotyping and dorky speechification, I couldn’t work up enough energy to really dislike the film. For one thing, there are several talented supporting cast members to distract one’s attention. Johnny Galecki (who played David, Darlene’s live-in boyfriend on early-’90s Roseanne), turns up in a few scenes as Seth, a self-confident, smart, no-bullshit-taking, formerly alcoholic gay man who’s been hired, in Buddy’s rehabbing absence, to do administrative tasks around the office; watching his balanced performance is one of the only uninterrupted pleasures of the film. Meanwhile, a lively, likable performance from Tony Goldwyn (remember him? he played the bad guy in Ghost) as the doomed Greg justifies Abby’s intense grief and ongoing adoration of his memory. And Joe Morton (best remembered as the scientist Miles Dyson in Terminator 2: Judgment Day) plays Buddy’s serious boss with both empathy and frustration — through his eyes, at least, the world of Bounce has nuance.

    

And somehow, truth be told, I never got bored of scrutinizing Ben and Gwyneth’s otherwise unexceptional kisses for some sign of their uncontrolled off-screen desire or future matrimonial destiny. My verdict: as my mother would say, Don’t buy a dress.


For more Rachel Mattson, read:

Boygirl, Boygirl
Drive: A Suburban Mystery
The Sum of the Parts: Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century”
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