Don’t believe the marketing of Bounce. This isn’t a romantic comedy. I can understand why Miramax took the happy route — it’s a lot easier to get an audience in to see a film if they believe it’s funny and, well, bouncy than if they knew it was a drama about grief, pain, guilt, and what it takes to get over such things. But don’t let reality deter you: Bounce is a genuinely moving and engrossing film brought to warm and authentic life by its gifted and intelligent stars.
Imagine an unsentimental, grown-up version of Random Hearts. Buddy Amaral (Ben Affleck: Reindeer Games, Boiler Room), a slick advertising executive and partner in a small Los Angeles ad agency, has just landed the lucrative Infinity Airlines account after a visit to the company’s Chicago headquarters. He’s the kind of self-centered, devil- may- care asshole who, when all flights are delayed due to weather and a hoped-for assignation with airline gate attendant Janice (Jennifer Grey) falls through, simply heads to the airport bar to pick up someone else — Mimi (Natasha Henstridge: The Whole Nine Yards, Dog Park) — for the night. But he’ll do a guy a favor, like pass his comp Infinity ticket on to Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn: Tarzan), family man, who just wants to get home to L.A. to spend some quality time with his kids.
Greg’s plane goes down — all are killed. Buddy deals with his crushing survivor’s guilt — and the fact that his agency spins the disaster for Infinity to great acclaim — with booze and drugs. When that doesn’t work and he’s done the rehab bit, Buddy moves on to making sure that Greg’s family are getting along okay without him. Greg’s wife, Abby (Gwyneth Paltrow: Duets, The Talented Mr. Ripley), is now, a year after his death, selling real estate, and Buddy throws some big business her way. She, still trying to get past her own grief, misinterprets his interest and pursues him romantically, unaware of his ghastly connection to her. And the more Buddy tries to extricate himself, the deeper involved he gets, until he finds himself falling in love with her.
The basic premise of Bounce I knew going in, and I expected it to pay off in the usual, boringly clichéd ways: the constant and deliberate lying on Buddy’s part to the point where he becomes utterly unsympathetic; the scene, probably in the rain, when she finds out who he Really Is, and delivers the typical “Trust you? How can I ever trust you?” speech. But my expectations would have been much higher had I known that Bounce was written and directed by Don Roos, who made the wonderfully original The Opposite of Sex. There are no clichés here: Buddy and Abby are real people, confused and upset, angry at life but desperate for the opportunity to start anew. There is no relapse for Buddy into his addictions when things get tough — he deals with his problems and the mess he has gotten himself into head on, like an adult. There are no histrionic wailings from the grieving widow, just pleasant memories of Greg and a nicely uncommented-upon hint that those still waters run deep: She wears a man’s watch, dangling too large from her slender wrist — it must be Greg’s. She never says anything about it.
Unlike the dark and bitterly funny Opposite of Sex, Bounce is comfortable and domestic, and Affleck and Paltrow exude a cozy chemistry, at ease with each other in a way that was probably a by-product of their off-screen romance but likely comes mostly from two actors confident in their performances and their work together. Paltrow seems at home whatever role she takes on, from comedy to drama, but Affleck should take this year’s disaster of Reindeer Games together with the triumph of Bounce as a big honking clue: he’s a character actor, not an action hero, and he’s going to do his best work onscreen if he doesn’t try to undermine his own talents. Then he may be able to avoid the Jerry Maguire career crisis his Buddy must endure to get to the point at which he’s contented with himself.