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Forces of Nature

Friday March 19, 1999

     "Forces of Nature" fools you, and more than once. Everything about it, from its title to its casting (Sandra Bullock! Ben Affleck!) to its ad line ("He went from the eye of the storm into the arms of a hurricane") practically scream conventional romantic comedy. But this film has several surprises in its repertoire, and most--but not all--of them make this a most pleasant and diverting venture.
     Smartly written by Marc Lawrence (whose remake of "The Out-of-Towners" is due out next month) and directed with a lively intelligence by Bronwen Hughes (who debuted with "Harriet the Spy"), "Forces of Nature" turns out to be an extremely likable vehicle with a genuine sense of fun.
     So cleverly constructed it feels spontaneous, "Forces" does stumble in its one-twist-too-many resolution, but it's so consistently charming up to then that, like a favorite child we can't help cheering on, it's difficult to chastise it for its lapses.
     "Forces of Nature" is one star vehicle that knows how to use its big names, starting with Affleck. He plays a young New Yorker named Ben (how convenient) who writes jacket copy for novels. When he's introduced at his bachelor party, being nonplused by exotic dancer Juanita the Bull Tamer, Ben is just days away from his marriage to the bright and lively Bridget (Maura Tierney, Jim Carrey's wife in "Liar, Liar").
     As it turns out, Ben gets nonplused a lot. His best friend and best man Alan (the irresistible Steve Zahn) is on the wacky side, but Ben himself is a practical, reliable, buttoned-down kind of guy. Affleck is one of the few young actors who can make stuffiness appealing, and in his hands being square and sheepish looks like a heck of a life choice.
     Circumstances too amusing to divulge dictate that Ben will be leaving New York for Savannah, the site of the wedding, a few days after Bridget. At the airport (disconcertingly shot at Washington Dulles), he catches a glimpse of kohl-eyed, tattooed Sarah, locked in a passionate embrace and oblivious to the world around her.
     A person who naturally makes a public spectacle out of everything, Sarah is one of the forces of nature the title refers to. A former stewardess, exotic dancer, auto show hostess and wedding videographer, she's someone who just might kiss the floor of a Kmart if she finds it open 24 hours. Sarah is the last person Ben wants to meet--and the very one who sits next to him on the flight.
     No one needs to be told that this kind of "I am the life force, hear me roar" woman is not exactly a character we haven't seen before. It is, however, a departure for the often demure Bullock. Her performance is both edgier and more relaxed than her standard fare, and the energy released via this act of self-liberation is visible on screen.
     Naturally, these two excel at getting on each other's nerves. Even before they leave the airport, she peeks at his computer screen efforts at writing sincere wedding vows and deflatingly asks if he works for Hallmark. Later, she calls him a "blurbologist," and worse.
     We all know, or at least we think we do, what's going to happen with these two. She's going to loosen him up and he's going to encourage her in a newly minted sense of responsibility. Yes, it's a tired concept, but several things make it hard to resist on screen, not the least of which is the ability of these actors, who have excellent chemistry together.
     Also to be expected is that that flight to Savannah never quite leaves the airport. Determined to reach that city as soon as possible, Ben and Sarah embark on a makeshift car, train and bus trip South that might as well have been routed through the Bermuda Triangle. Meanwhile, fiancee Bridget is hanging out in Savannah, coping with troublesome parents (Blythe Danner and Ronny Cox) and an ex-beau (David Stickland) who thinks the romance isn't over.
     What Lawrence and Hughes add to this is an exact eye for wonderful eccentrics met on the road (Junie Lowry Johnson did the fine casting) and a playful running gag about the dreadful perils of marriage. Everyone Ben talks to has a bad word to say about the institution, including his own grandfather, who dismisses sentimental thoughts about Ben's grandmother with a curt, "The woman looked like Tolstoy."
     Lawrence's script is full of playful and unexpected lines that give the film a welcome personal feeling, as when someone who's been complaining about children is asked if he has any kids and replies, "Nah, but I see 'em all over." Though the resolution of "Forces of Nature" may leave you feeling swindled, there's comfort to be gained in knowing the deed was done by some extremely talented professionals.

Forces of Nature, 1999. PG-13 for sensuality, language and a scene of drug use. A Roth/Arnold production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Bronwen Hughes. Producers Susan Arnold, Donna Arkoff Roth. Screenplay by Marc Lawrence. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Craig Wood. Costumes Donna Zakowska. Music John Powell. Production design Lester Cohen. Art director Christa Munro. Set decorator Leslie Morales. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Sandra Bullock as Sarah. Ben Affleck as Ben. Maura Tierney as Bridget. Steve Zahn as Alan. Blythe Danner as Virginia. Ronny Cox as Hadley.

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