Published March 1, 1999
There are two problems with Forces of Nature, which was written by Marc Lawrence and directed by Bronwen Hughes: the script and the stars. The script, in turn, has two problems: not enough jokes (though several of the jokes there are are good ones) and a moral tendency that pulls away from its dramatic tendency—something I will explain in a moment. The stars are two, Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock, and they are also two problems. Or one and a half. Neither is quite attractive enough, either physically or as a personality, though Miss Bullock on her own might have done well enough if she had been paired with someone other than the stolid Mr Affleck. As it is, she never quite succeeds in making the chemistry between them fizz. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn might have made this concept—a stick-in-the-mud guy about to be married to a stick-in-the-mud gal is stirred into life by a female free-spirit—work well. In fact, they did make it work well in Holiday (1938). But Ben and Sandra are not quite in their league, it seems to me.
It’s a pity, because in a lot of ways this is an attractive picture, and as a meditation on marriage it has a certain charm. Ben (Mr Affleck) is flying from New York to Savannah to marry Bridget (Maura Tierney) when his plane takes a bird in an engine and almost crashes on take-off. In the confusion that follows, he rescues his seat-mate, Sarah (Miss Bullock) from, well, something, and she is inordinately grateful to him. As a hurricane is approaching Savannah, all other flights are canceled and demand for rental cars outstrips supply. Ben and Sarah find themselves driving to Savannah together. What follows is a sort of bachelor’s nightmare. As frightened of marriage as he is of flying, Ben encounters one disaster after another as a sort of warning from God to keep him from going through with the wedding, while resourceful but ditzy Sarah naturally comes to seem more and more like an alternative to the staid and absent Bridget—who, back in Savannah, is simultaneously being pursued by an old boyfriend.
Both she and Ben keep encountering marital mementes mori in the examples of their squabbling parents and, seemingly, everyone they meet with any experience of the married state. This includes Sarah herself, who is a two-time loser and the mother of a young son from whom she is separated. For Ben, in particular, the choice is soon a stark one: is he to be shackled for life to someone who by this time seems almost certain to make him miserable or is he to follow the advice of his sexually gamy best man (Steve Zahn) and, seemingly, every other man he meets, and take the opportunities life offers, which may not infrequently look like scrumptious Sarah? The answer may seem an obvious one when put like that, but full marks to the movie for confounding our expectations, based both on precedent and on what we know of the Hollywood ethos, and not treating it as obvious.
But here is where we get to that divergence between the dramatic and the moral. I can’t fully explain this without giving away the ending—which with a worse film I wouldn’t mind doing on the assumption that no one with any taste would go see the thing anyway. There’s another evening I can spend reading, thank God! I am half-tempted to give Forces of Nature a “worth-seeing” star, however, because of a moral seriousness and maturity that is far from common in Hollywood products, even though this is purchased at the expense of a certain dramatic incoherence and an unsatisfactory ending for the character who most engages our sympathies. What tips the balance against the worth-seeing star is the feeble performances from most of the movie’s stars—even the minor ones. The two sets of parents, for instance, only do enough to show us how troubled are their marriages, but they are not fully-realized characters apart from that. Likewise, some of the characters our heroes meet on their journey are potentially interesting but never quite break through into individuality. Sarah is a well-drawn character and Sandra Bullock does a good job in bringing her to life. She the best of a bad lot, but she cannot pull the thing off by herself.