Beginnings are scary. Endings are usually sad, but it's what's in the middle that counts. So, when you find yourself at the beginning, just give hope a chance to float up. And it will.
Last week, I was in the city of Sarajevo with a few hours to waste during a torrential downpour. Running down the pedestrian promenade that lined the banks of the swollen Miljacka River, I found myself in front of the Kino Tesla, one of the few theaters that dot the Sarajevo cityscape. The movie being shown was "Uvijek Postoje Nada", better known to Western audiences as "Hope Floats". And though "Hope Floats" was in North American theaters last spring and has already come and gone on video, last week marked its theatrical debut in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
While Bosnia-Hercegovina has certainly taken some initiative on the cinematic front, such as the annual Sarajevo Film Festival held in late August, the film exhibition infrastructure is not as developed as it is in the rest of Europe. Megaplex fever, which has caught most of the movie-going world by storm, is nowhere to be seen, with the majority of the country's theaters being independently owned and operated. The quality of venues varies tremendously, from older theaters that look more like glorified high school auditoriums with a skeleton staff to more professional-looking theaters that were built after the 1992-1996 siege of Sarajevo.
Theatrical programming is dominated by star-driven mainstream Americana shown in their original language with Bosnian subtitles (which also serve as a great way to learn the Bosnian language). While I was in the city, the movies in rotation ranged from two months to two years old-- "Life is Beautiful", "Stepmom", "The Thin Red Line", "Addicted to Love", and even "Ace Ventura 2". The remaining screens were occupied by exploitational fare, including some homegrown guns-and-gangster sagas and the direct-to-video Dom Deluise parody "The Godson".
Ticket prices run the gamut from 3-5 DM (approximately $2-3 US), and it is difficult to imagine how these theaters manage to stay in business. In additional to the low ticket prices, theaters only have two screenings per day (typically at 6 and 8 pm), and have no concession sales. In the typical theatrical exhibition business model, theaters maximize revenues through maximizing the number of screenings and via concession sales, which often are responsible for the bulk of movie house profitability. The reason for this is that film rentals (paid to the distributor) typically constitute 50-70% of the admission price, leaving little from which theater owners can recoup wages, rent, other expenses, and profits. It was even more troubling to see that the theaters in Sarajevo were only selling to 60% capacity on average, which further eroded the revenue potential. But I digress...
"Hope Floats" is a 'woe is me' romantic tearjerker that lacks any point, poignancy, or imaginative spark. Like the more recent Sandra Bullock vehicle "Practical Magic", "Hope Floats" ends up sinking with its by-the-book-Bullock narrative that winds up emotionally dead-on-arrival.
People fall in love. They fall right back out. It happens all the time.
It starts of promisingly enough with the happily married Birdee Pruitt (Bullock) being invited onto the 'Toni Post Show', an afternoon time-waster in the vein of "Jerry Springer". Thinking that she is about to receive a free beauty makeover, Birdee is shocked to find herself humiliated on national television by both her best friend (Rosanna Arquette) and her high-school sweetheart husband Bill (Michael Pare). It seems that the two have been an item behind Birdee's back, and they publicly declare their love for one another on the show.
Is this where you were "cream of corn"?
"Queen of Corn," honey. Three years runnin'. A feat unsurpassed in the history of Smithville.
It doesn't take long for Birdee to grab her daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman) and return home to Smithville, Texas, where her mother Ramona (Gena Rowlands of "The Mighty") still lives. Unfortunately, things aren't much better after arriving at her childhood stomping grounds, where Birdee had the dubious distinction of being crowned 'Corn Queen of Smithville', thrice. In addition to having to deal with her own heartbreak, Birdee must help her daughter cope with the sudden breakup of the family, a situation that the resentful Bernice puts the blame on her mother's shoulders. Birdee also must cope with the ordeals of living under the same roof as her eccentric mother, who has a penchant for taxodermy and giving unwanted advice.
Birdee is also unable to put her public humiliation behind her, since everyone in town has seen (and even taped) her infamous appearance on national television. Furthermore, having spent the past few years as a housewife with few marketable job skills, Birdee seems to be only cut out for working at the local one-hour photo outlet. However, there is a ray of light in Birdee's life with the entrance of Justine Matisse (Harry Connick Jr.), a high school pal that used to have a crush on her. Not surprisingly, romance soon follows.
Look at me. My life has no meaning or direction, and I'm happy.
"Hope Floats" is yet another bland movie about two bland people falling in love. And unlike the recent "Message in a Bottle", which suffered from the same affliction, this film doesn't even have a mildly interesting premise to hook audiences in. Like the recent Kevin Costner-starrer, the primary obstacle to the romance is Birdee's state of mind, with this character going through the throes of depression (including the obligatory scene in which the protagonist walks through the rain in a sullen state), only to have everything turn out okay in the last ten minutes with an artificially-cheerful ending.
Dancing's just a conversation between two people. Talk to me.
Moreover, the material was abound with missed opportunities that could have taken the story in more interesting directions, and yes, even given the story some much needed depth. For example, Birdee is humiliated on national television to kick the story off, yet the idea never gets picked up again, which could have added a satirical edge to the film in addition to providing Birdee with a poetic comeuppance. Furthermore, Bullock's character is given a talent for taking good photographs, yet it never develops further that the set up for a one-note joke. Finally, and most importantly, "Hope Floats" seems to be about the struggle of Birdee trying to 'find herself' after spending years living her life for someone else, yet in the end, the issue of whether or not Birdee actually finds herself is never answered. "Hope Floats" does nothing to add depth to this sort of story that you've seen before, and the finished product lacks resonance of any sort.
Besides the film's generic tale of love lost and found, the film suffers a number of other missteps. While Connick may be considered ruggedly handsome in some circles, his acting leaves a lot to be desired, leaving you to wonder what Birdee possibly sees in him. Whitman, who is supposed to play the film's other object of sympathy, comes across as unappealingly obnoxious, even in the scenes that are overtly emotionally manipulative. Director Forest Whitaker (who also directed "Waiting to Exhale"), also uses a lot of musical interludes to bridge scenes and pad the running time-- unfortunately, it's also very obvious (as it was in "The Mod Squad"). Finally, I did catch one technical gaffe-- in the scene where Birdee wakes up on the floor of the bathroom, a boom-mike is clearly visible at the bottom of the screen.
Mom, are you gonna marry Justin Matisse?
Oh, honey, I'm not planning on getting married again for along time. What, you don't like Justin?
No, it's not that. It's just that....
What is it? You can tell me.
I just don't want to be known as Bernice Matisse!
In the end, "Hope Floats" winds up being a sham. The heroine never really resoles anything in her life (other than overcoming the blues), she falls in love with an uninteresting hero, and worst of all, they walk off into the sunset in a lazily-written ending that uses 'chicken soup for the soul' quips as a way of wrapping up loose ends in a neat and tidy package. Don't raise your expectations for this one-- "Hope Floats" will sink every one of them.