Like last year's ill-conceived "Random Hearts", "Bounce" begins with a plane crash that ultimately brings two strangers together. Fortunately, that is the only point of similarity between these two films. Whereas "Random Hearts" tested audience patience as Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas spent two hours boring each other to death, "Bounce" is executed with much more enthusiasm and energy, which is in part due to its two leads. It is common knowledge that stars Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow, who last shared the screen in "Shakespeare in Love", were an item during production, and it shows in the uncommon chemistry that their on-screen personas share. Furthermore, writer/director Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex") does a commendable job in raising the bar in what could have been yet another mediocre romance.
The story begins during a snowstorm that almost completely shuts down Chicago O'Hare airport during the pre-Christmas rush. Buddy (Affleck), an up-and-coming advertising agent, has first-class tickets back to Los Angeles, courtesy of his latest client Infinity Airlines, and is one of the fortunate few whose flight has not been cancelled.
While waiting for his plane to board, he stops off in the bar where he runs into two strangers, Greg (Tony Goldwyn of "The Sixth Day") and Mimi (Natasha Henstridge of "Species II"). Greg is a playwright who has just given up his seat back to Los Angeles for free air travel vouchers and $200 cash, much to the chagrin of his wife and kids who are waiting for him at home. Meanwhile, Mimi has a hotel voucher to compensate for her cancelled flight, and is far from ambiguous about who she would like to share her free room with. Seeing a win-win situation, Buddy gives his ticket to Greg so that he can spend the night with Mimi. Unfortunately, later that night, the plane crashes. All passengers aboard are killed, including Greg, who is survived by his wife Abby (Paltrow) and two children (Alex D. Linz of "Titan A.E." and David Dorfman).
Demonized by guilt and how his advertising agency assists Infinity Airlines with 'damage control', Buddy takes some time off, and winds up in a rehab clinic for alcoholism. A year later, Buddy returns to work and as part of his twelve steps to recovery, he feels compelled to make amends to those he has hurt. The first person he looks for is Abby, who is a struggling with a real estate career and raising two kids on her own. Out of pity for her, Buddy brings Abby aboard to conduct a lucrative real estate transaction for his company, even at the protests of his boss (Joe Morton of "Lone Star"). However, what he doesn't expect is that Abby begins to have feelings for him, and starts making advances. Unfortunately, Buddy doesn't have the heart to tell Abby the truth about why he helped her out in the first place, which becomes even more difficult when he begins falling in love with her.
On the surface, "Bounce" has the elements of every other by-the-book romance. You have the self-centered hero who eventually learns to care more about the other people in his life, and the traumatized heroine who eventually learns to open her heart again. There's the token 'gay guy' with the snarky comments (Johnny Galecki of "I Know What You Did Last Summer"), the kids who resent mom's new boyfriend, and the big moment where the hero must make the difficult choice between his career and what could be true love.
In the hands of writer/director Roos, "Bounce" manages to rise above these rote elements. Roos' debut feature, "The Opposite of Sex", was an acerbic and unconventional comedy that defied conventions at every turn. In the case of "Bounce", Roos is more conventional in execution, though he makes a point of conveying the ideas and themes of the story with as much care as possible. Instead of hitting the audience over the head with overt clichés or inane dialogue that tell you exactly what everyone's thinking, Roos' script and direction handle the material in a very subtle manner, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks for themselves. One such theme is guilt. Whereas Buddy feels primarily responsible for leaving Abby without a husband and her kids without a father, he soon comes to understand how misguided his feelings of guilt are when he encounters similar sentiments in Abby and her eldest son, who each have their own reasons for feeling guilty about what happened.
Another element working in the film's favor is the chemistry between Affleck and Paltrow, which makes it easy for the audience to sympathize for them and want to see them work it out. The role of Buddy demands an actor that is both likable and capable of delivering the range of emotions required, and Affleck handles it with much aplomb in what is probably the most demanding role of his career. At the same time, 'It-girl' Paltrow tones down her porcelain looks and brings her tremendous acting talent to bear in credibly portraying a widow who seems to have lost confidence in the world.
However, if there is anywhere in which "Bounce" stumbles is how the 'big reveal' is handled. While part of the suspense of the story hinges on when Buddy will tell Abby the truth and her reaction to such a revelation, the script stretches this out to the limits of plausibility, such that Buddy's reluctance to tell almost seems contrived, thereby no longer ringing true. Unfortunately, this is a well-tread technique in the romance and comedy genres-- a specific situation is allowed to develop, which of course wouldn't happen in the first place, if someone had merely said something up front. Other films where this is used (to the filmmaker's own peril) include "Picture Perfect", "Message in a Bottle", and more recently, "Return to Me".
Overall, "Bounce" is an entertaining and surprisingly subtle and moving romance. Bolstered by an above-average script and its two terrific lead actors, "Bounce" is a nice sentimental alternative to the louder and flashier offerings this holiday movie-going season.