Published May 1, 1998
Hope Floats directed by Forrest Whitaker to a screenplay by Steven Rodgers is a feel-good movie selling a relatively innocuous version of the Hollywood dream—i.e. that all the world’s problems come from people, especially parents and children, not hugging each other enough and giving tongue to their feelings of love for each other. The other side of the Hollywood dream is, of course, that hugging (and other sorts of embraces) makes all hurts feel better and solves all problems. In particular, feelings of sexual love are all that matters, justifying any cruelty or faithlessness, but for some reason Hope Floats stops short of this corollary. In fact, its bad guy is the husband who leaves his wife to marry her best friend because he is “in love.” I don’t know if this quite amounts to incoherence, but I know that the hugging and expressing-your-feelings part struck me with even more irritation than it usually does.
Maybe the problem is that the movie suffers from another sort of incoherence in its attempt to show that the kinds of people who go on daytime TV shows to spill their most intimate secrets are not the trashy low-life scum they appear to be but decent folks who have families just like you and me. You do not have to buy this very dubious proposition in order to appreciate the movie, but you do have to wonder what, besides an arresting opening gimmick, is the point of showing Birdee Calvert Pruitt (Sandra Bullock) appearing on a particularly scummy (fictitious) show where her husband, Bill (Michael Pare) and her best friend Connie (Rosanna Arquette) confess to their affair in her presence—as well, of course, as that of several million strangers.
Birdee, who lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter, Bernice (Mae Whitman), packs up her things, takes Bernice and returns to her hometown (and Bill’s) of Smithville, Texas to move in with her mother, Ramona (Gena Rowlands) who is an amateur taxidermist and one of those lovable eccentrics that Hollywood is especially fond of. Birdee was not only a cheerleader and the prom queen at Smithville High, she was Corn Queen of Smithville four years running. Bill was quarterback of the football team. The film begins to get some traction when it portrays the smug satisfaction on the part of many of the townspeople that the prettiest and most popular girl in high school has returned under such humiliating circumstances. One girl who was fat and unattractive feels particularly aggrieved. Now that she runs a temp agency and Birdee goes to her looking for a job, she tells her that “I don’t have a listing for a Prom Queen.”
But this kind interesting character soon begins to fall beside the wayside as we approach the inevitable hug-fest of mother and daughter and grand-daughter, all of whom take pride, you’ll be amazed to learn, in being Strong Women. As Birdee says of her broken marriage: “The harder I tried to be what he wanted me to be, the less I saw myself in his eyes. . .One day I was gone.” Presumably she won’t make that mistake again with Justin Matisse (Harry Connick, Jr), a high school acquaintance who used to have a crush on Birdee but was too shy to approach her. She and Bill were out of his league, he says. If you can believe Harry Connick, Jr when he says that, you’re a better man than I. Justin begins to romance Birdee a bit, but not too much, in spite of Mom’s attempts to match-make between the two of them, and by the end we can see in him the broken love-fantasy renewed. But why don’t they go on TV to discuss it?