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Natural Disaster

FORCES OF NATURE
Directed by Bronwen Hughes

At the movies, the fun-loving temptress has been liberating the buttoned-up clod ever since Katharine Hepburn's leopard made off with Cary Grant's dinosaur bone in Bringing Up Baby, 61 years ago. Maybe even longer, if you count pioneer vamp Theda Bara's effect on a long succession of speechless men. In a new romantic comedy called Forces of Nature -- new in the sense that it's fresh product at the multiplexes -- we encounter the old story again: Reckless Sandra Bullock puts a charge in uptight Ben Affleck, and he starts to wonder where she's been all his life. Despite the fact he's marrying somebody else come Saturday.

Between their chance meeting on an airliner that skids off a runway in New York and their bittersweet goodbye, a couple of days later, in a hurricane-tossed garden in Savannah, Bullock's wild Sarah and Affleck's cautious Ben are subjected to every neo-screwball mishap and road-movie disaster scriptwriter Marc Lawrence and director Bronwen Hughes (Harriet the Spy) can pull out of the archives. Thrown together by fate, our unlikely fellow travelers find themselves in a rental car with a stranger who promptly gets everyone busted for marijuana possession. Next, Sarah and Ben's train uncouples in midtrip. They're drenched by a rainstorm. They slide across the floor of a Kmart in North Carolina. They wind up on a chartered bus full of retirees headed for Miami. Our reluctant hero has to do a striptease in a gay bar.

"You wanna be on your deathbed saying you lived by all the rules?" the free spirit asks the rattled straight man -- perhaps for the 2,000th time in movie history. But now there's an unintended irony in the question: Forces of Nature also lives by all the rules; it goes through all the motions without moving us very much.

Lawrence, who wrote the kiddy comedy Life with Mikey and the upcoming remake of The Out-of-Towners, has gathered spare parts from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and recent road pictures like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and bolted them together with the mock-cynicism of the '90s. On the eve of his wedding, for instance, Ben finds that almost no one believes much in marriage -- not his ailing grandfather, who says that Grandma "looked like Tolstoy"; not two septuagenarians on a train, who say they're happy for the first time because they're finally having an extramarital affair with each other; not even the mismatched parents of the prospective bride (Maura Tierney) and groom, who are waiting none too happily for Ben's arrival in Savannah.

Sarah has some predictable problems of her own, it turns out. She's been married twice, both times to con men, and her 10-year-old is in emotional limbo.

It's too much to ask that Bullock give off the madcap heat of someone like Carole Lombard, or that Lawrence infuse his dialogue with Dudley Nichols' wit, or that director Hughes move along at the thrilling pace of a Hawks or a Sturges. But anyone who forks out 8 (or more) bucks for a movie ticket deserves more than a bit of hip attitude, a pair of pretty faces and a raft of TV-sitcom jokes.

Unfortunately, Bullock and Affleck don't strike many sparks or produce many yuks. The star of Speed and the co-author/co-star of Good Will Hunting may be hot properties these days, but they're not exactly built for comedy. Perched on the roof of a passenger train, they happily howl at the sunset, and the moment evaporates like mist from a window. Stuck together in a gaudy motel room, they fail to mine the tenderness or the absurdity of their plight. We get the sense that we are watching not characters in the making but movie stars on display. That's a pleasure in itself, of course, but one that doesn't last. By the time you get to the end of this plodding and predictable rehash, you feel as worn out as an old movie plot.

Opens March 19.
-- Bill Gallo

MIXING NIA
Written and directed by Alison Swan

THE WORLD'S BEST COMMERCIALS 1998

For all its flaws, Alison Swan's debut feature, Mixing Nia, is an independent film with ideas of its own, a throwback to the not-so-distant time when the "independent" label was more than a catchphrase for selling Tarantino knock-offs and romantic comedies starring cast members of Friends. (If they're so independent, why do they all look alike?) The first offering in Webster University's Independent Visions series, Swan's romantic comedy tackles heady subjects with energy and ambition, taking risks and even making mistakes, but showing genuine promise in a time when many new filmmakers are content to go for broke in their first film, never to be heard from again.

At the center of Swan's film is Nia (Karyn Parsons, best known for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), a young woman from a racially mixed background who abruptly quits her advertising job to become a writer. Having evidently never given much thought to her racial identity, Nia is suddenly confronted by a barrage of opinions,continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageas nearly every person in her life presents their view of what she should be writing about and, by extension, how she should see herself. These include her divorced parents; her former work partner (Eric Thal), a young man who has bought into the whole "cocktail nation" fad a bit too heavily; and a professor of African-American studies (Isaiah Washington) whose strident views threaten to overtake Nia's own personality.

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