Thursday, October 21, 2004

Operation Travolta: Sandra Bullock

This is the rare case where the operation – intended to revive an actor’s career with the right role – may fail because the patient doesn’t feel it’s necessary. Purely in box office terms, she may be right.

Bullock began in TV, filling in for Nancy McKeon in the sitcom version of WORKING GIRL and playing the Bionic Woman 2.0 in a backdoor pilot. Her plucky, girl-next-door charm moved her into features quickly, where she was often the best thing in the movie. (DEMOLITION MAN, anyone?)

The one-two punch of SPEED and WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING made her a star. She followed up with a series of lackluster films like THE NET, IN LOVE AND WAR and SPEED’s misbegotten sequel.

Bullock began producing many of her own movies with 1998’s HOPE FLOATS. She also became her own worst enemy, showing a taste for middle-of-the-road fare that generates modest hits like TWO WEEKS NOTICE (note the dropped apostrophe) but nothing with real staying power. MISS CONGENIALITY became a smash by playing to her gift for physical comedy. It’s a fun movie, but nothing to build a career on.

To her eternal credit, Bullock also produced a movie I love dearly, GUN SHY (2000). Disney released it in only five cities before dumping it on home video. I’m one of the few people who saw it theatrically, along with Slate critic David Edelstein, who called it “a classic, a unique blend of SOPRANOS and PRIZZI’S HONOR-style black comedy and screwball romance.” Liam Neeson gives an inspired comic performance – although oddly, his scenes with Bullock seem superfluous. She has also returned to TV, producing the sitcom GEORGE LOPEZ.

Bullock’s forays into drama haven’t worked because of poor scripts. 28 DAYS is a truly awful film about alcoholism that undermines its intent with a case of the cutes, something that plagues many of her movies. In the half-baked Leopold and Loeb pastiche MURDER BY NUMBERS, she plays a tough detective with the kind of tortured backstory that would be better explained in a handout than the rote scenes she’s given to play.

Unlike many contemporary actors, Bullock hasn’t crossed over to work with independent filmmakers. And she has yet to play a role that taps into her sexuality. Let’s face it, she’s a beautiful woman. Meg Ryan’s recent movies IN THE CUT and AGAINST THE ROPES may not have turned out the way she wanted, but at least they show a willingness to play with how she’s perceived. Bullock, for now, remains trapped by her good-girl image.

A sequel to MISS CONGENIALITY is due next year. Also in the works are two films where Bullock plays writers. She’ll appear as Harper Lee in a movie about Truman Capote, and is slated to star in a biopic about PEYTON PLACE author Grace Metalious. That’s an intriguing idea for a movie, but then so was Bette Midler as Jacqueline Susann in ISN’T SHE GREAT, and look how that turned out. Personally, I’d feel a lot better if I knew Sandra had gotten in touch with Kimberly Peirce or MONSTER director Patty Jenkins. She’s got the chops to be a great dramatic actress as well as a comedienne, if only she’d let her hair down.