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Just in time for the year’s peak travel week, Hollywood has unleashed films motivated by a fatal plane crash and a calamitous train wreck. If this trend continues, by Christmas moviegoers will be demanding seat belts and air bags.
In writer-director Don Roos’ Bounce, hotshot L.A. advertising salesman Buddy Amaral (Ben Affleck) finds himself delayed by a snowstorm at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Invited by Mimi (Natasha Henstridge), a sleek blonde he picks up in a terminal cocktail lounge, to wait out the blizzard in her hotel room, he surrenders his ticket on the last flight west to Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn), a stranger eager to return to his wife and two sons. The plane goes down several hours after takeoff, killing everyone on board.
Repelled by the touchy-feely damage-control ad campaign mounted by his firm, which represents the airline, and feeling somehow responsible for Greg’s death, Buddy boozes himself into rehab. Emerging three months later, he attempts, in accordance with his 12-step program, to make amends to the people he’s hurt. He seeks out Greg’s widow, struggling real estate agent Abby (Gwyneth Paltrow), and, without admitting that he met her late husband, arranges for her to earn the commission on a $2 million building that his company plans to purchase. After the deal goes through, she invites him out to celebrate and…well, need I continue?
In the clammy hands of, say, Nora Ephron, Bounce would be insufferable, a trail of tears capped by a redemptive rainbow. But Roos, whose feature debut was the bracingly nasty comedy The Opposite of Sex, has too much intelligence and self-respect to wallow in cheesy sentiment. His dialogue bristles with plain truths about the pain of loss and the courage required to abandon the comfort of grief in order to bounce back from adversity.
Roos’ resourceful direction breathes fresh life into his overhyped leading players. Thus far, I haven’t been particularly impressed by Affleck’s or Paltrow’s acting, but my unresponsiveness might be the result of envy. I can’t help regarding them as the archetypal prom king and queen, blessed with looks that have won them early fame and wealth almost effortlessly. Forgettable performances in flop after flophis: Forces of Nature, Dogma, Reindeer Games; hers: Great Expectations, Hush, Duetshaven’t diminished their bankability or magazine-cover celebrity. You’d have to be a saint not to resent them just a little.
But Roos manages to humanize these media icons. He unearths something vulnerable behind Affleck’s smug, frat-boy callowness and a warmth beneath Paltrow’s brittle, fashion-model façade. Stripped of glamour-girl makeup and crowned by drab, unkempt brown hair, Paltrow eschews her customary winsome mannerismsthe simpering half-smile, the wounded, waiflike glanceto create a multidimensional character too conflicted to control her fractured emotions. I doubt that either star is yet capable of the extraordinary performance that Roos coaxed out of Lisa Kudrow as The Opposite of Sex’s embittered fag hag, but they make Buddy and Abby well worth caring about.
Although Bounce is patently designed as Roos’ ploy to escape the independent-movie ghetto and enter the industry mainstream, he makes the move without degrading himself. His romantic scenario is undeniably contrived, but he compensates by executing it with enough tact and sensitivity to affect all but the strongest minds and the coldest hearts.
Some years back, I ordered a plate of fried dumplings at a Chinatown restaurant. Just as I was about to devour the last one, I noticed a cockroach griddle-fused to its side. This discovery cast a retrospective pall over the meal, leaving me angry and disgusted. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable triggered a similar reaction: I watched it with interest and considerable pleasure until the filmmaker’s preposterous, asinine surprise ending poisoned everything that had gone before.
Moviegoers who made Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense an unexpected box-office triumph are unlikely to embrace his new supernatural thriller, even though it contains many of the earlier film’s elements. Again, the setting is Philadelphia, the director’s hometown, and, again, Bruce Willis plays a melancholy man struggling to relate to a young boy. Unbreakable casts Willis as David Dunn, an unfulfilled former college athlete working as a football-stadium security guard, uneasily coexisting with his alienated wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), and son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark).
Returning from a job interview in New York, David miraculously walks away from a train derailment that kills all of his fellow passengers as well as the crew. Soon afterward, he’s contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic-book-art dealer afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as “glass-bone disease.” Believing that existence is governed by complementary forces, the fragile Elijah identifies David as his unbreakable “other,” the superhero counterpart to his own vulnerable antagonist. Initially, David scoffs at this crackpot notion, but a series of subsequent experiences persuades him that Elijah could be right. A climactic act of heroism confirms David’s indomitability and leads to a startling (and patently ridiculous) revelation about Elijah’s true nature.
As a screenwriter, Shyamalan isn’t terribly scrupulous about originality. Just as The Sixth Sense cannibalized the storyline of the Val Lewton-produced classic 1944 B-movie The Curse of the Cat People, Unbreakable clearly derives from director Peter Weir’s vastly superior 1993 film Fearless, in which Jeff Bridges’ life is transformed after he survives a plane crash. But there’s no denying Shyamalan’s uncommon gift for framing a narrative in visual terms. This time out, The Sixth Sense’s crisp, luminous cinematography has been supplanted by shadowy, obliquely composed images. The movie’s somber tone and measured pace prepare us for an explosive climax, the ultimate test of David’s omnipotence. But Shyamalan, so skilled at building ominous moods, fumbles his big action sequence in a frenzy of incoherent montage.
Unbreakable’s actors manage to create expressive characters, despite the screenplay’s minimal dialogue. Penn’s eloquent silences reveal all we need to know about Audrey’s marital disappointment, and Jackson’s steely intensity conveys Elijah’s enigmatic otherworldliness. Bald, soft-spoken Willis, so insufferable in his smirking, bewigged blockbuster persona, contributes a thoughtfully muted performance. But Shyamalan’s ruinously ill-conceived ending, designed to top The Sixth Sense’s celebrated final twist, negates the cast’s considerable achievements as well as his own, resulting in a long Night’s journey into naught. CP