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Were they really a couple?

'Bounce' an underinflated romance


In this story:

A missed flight

Is it love?

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(CNN) -- It's ironic that "Bounce" shares its name with a fabric softener, given what a stiff it is.

In case you've been inexplicably immersed in something important, this is the much-ballyhooed big screen reunion of everybody's favorite are-they-or-aren't-they Hollywood couple, Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow. Only they know the extent of their relationship, of course. But based on this movie, it's hard to believe that they've ever slapped each other a vigorous high-five. There's more actual chemistry on display at an underfunded community college.

What a lingering, contrived, lukewarm mess this is. Along with Affleck, whose screen presence -- as always -- seems to have been spun out of vapor, the main culprit is writer-director Don Roos.

And that's a surprise. Roos' last film, "The Opposite of Sex" (1998), is a vicious little comedy full of razor-fanged dialogue and misanthropic characters. The mushy, new age tone of "Bounce" suggests that he's trying to play the ol' "one for them, one for me" game, in which adventurous directors alternate between studio porridge and the more piercing films that they really want to make. It's a back-door testament to his true abilities that he fails so miserably.

A missed flight

Dig this story. It's like an episode of "Truth or Coincidences."

Affleck plays Buddy Amaral, a self-absorbed business executive who's just landed an account with a major airline. As the movie opens, he's heading to a Chicago airport to fly that very carrier back to L.A. His plane is delayed by bad weather, however, so he hangs out in the lounge with the other passengers. There, he strikes up a conversation with Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn), a struggling playwright who only wants to get home to his wife and two kids, and Mimi (Natasha Henstridge), who wouldn't mind getting snowed in so that she can have a one-nighter with Buddy. Buddy feels the same way about her. If you've ever seen Henstridge, you know why.

Acting, not action, for the leading man

Ben Affleck buoyant about 'Bounce'
Movie trailer for 'Bounce'

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After mockingly interviewing and taping Greg with Mimi's video camera (You don't think that'll show up again, do you?), Buddy gives him his first-class ticket back to California. That night Buddy and Mimi turn on the TV to discover that the plane has crashed. Greg, and everyone else on board, is dead. By all rights, Buddy should be lying in pieces somewhere in Kansas, instead of lying beside Mimi. This sends Buddy on a dark night of the soul, during which he starts drinking, wearing wrinkled clothes and not shaving.

It doesn't matter whether he's psyched by an achievement or wallowing in existential pity. Affleck delivers every line of dialogue as if he's reading the ingredients off a pickle jar.

He's a good-looking, completely affable guy who certainly isn't doing anyone any harm, but it's getting increasingly difficult to pretend that he's a capable performer. Affleck's knees should hit the floor every night, thanking the Lord for Keanu Reeves, who serves as his buffer against the very bottom of the superstar barrel.

Buddy then enters Alcoholics Anonymous for nine months, not that you get to see him do it. His recovery is so effortless you'd think defeating alcoholism is comparable to clipping an ingrown toenail. When his "struggle" is brought up again later in the movie, you've already forgotten about it. Roughly a year after the tragedy, he wants to talk to the wife of the man who took his place on that death plane.

Is it love?

That would be you-know-who as Abby, a fledgling real estate broker who negotiates every situation in a predictably cute, medium-level fluster. Buddy meets her one morning at her new office. Paltrow, who's an actual actress, gives the best performance in the picture. The scene when she's informed of her husband's demise is quite moving, and shot with restraint.

That doesn't, however, make you any less weary of Abby's continual "what to do" hysteria as the story progresses. Paltrow is quickly edging her way toward Lara Flynn Boyle in the skin-and-bones sweepstakes, by the way; when she turns sideways, it looks like Affleck is talking to himself.

The rest of the movie consists of Buddy hesitating (and hesitating and hesitating) to tell Abby how he came to meet her, because he loves her more than ... well, advertising. There's so little going on in these people's lives, you don't feel the emotional swirl that Roos is looking for. You can feel everyone very slowly pushing buttons.

Abby's kids add a bit of weight to the plot as they bond with the slowly humanizing Buddy, but you'd think that either he or Abby would recognize the hardcore inappropriateness of the boys playing a computer game in which you try to land, and usually crash, a commercial airliner. (A disembodied air traffic controller shouts "Pull up! Pull up!" as the plane bursts into flames.) At one point, Abby somberly says that the kids are still afraid to fly. And after all she's done to ease them through the trauma.

Roos fumbles almost every aspect of the production. The tear-jerking is extremely iffy. The one-liners are contrived and usually unamusing. And the final act, which suddenly involves Buddy testifying in a high-profile court case, seems like it snuck in from another picture altogether. Honestly, how worked up can you get when a man apologizes to his lover from a TV screen?

There's some mild profanity in "Bounce," and the slightest smattering of sex. Help save our endangered Gwyneth Paltrow. If enough people cable her management, they might convince her to eat a sandwich. Rated PG-13. 130 minutes.

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