Let's start with the title: two words whose juxtaposition is neither evocative nor yielding of any clear sense. Hope Floats is not about the sister of Faith and Charity taking swimming lessons ... or a diner that serves two scoops of ice cream in 18 ounces of wishfulness ... or parade vehicles carrying a nonagenarian comedian. (Okay, there is a forgettable reference somewhere in the film, some nauseating droplet of faux wisdom about "Give hope a chance to float up -- it will, too.")
It must be admitted, however, that the title's meaninglessness is actually appropriate, however unintentionally.
The opening sequence -- handily the best five minutes in the film -- takes place on your basic daytime talk show. Toni Post (Kathy Najimy doing a spot-on parody of Ricki Lake) brings Birdee Pruitt (Sandra Bullock) on stage for a makeover. But the makeover is just a cover: Birdee is really there to be told that her husband (Michael Pare) and her best friend (an unbilled Rosanna Arquette) are having an affair. The scene sets up an intriguing question: How would it really feel to have your most personal tragedy exploited in front of a national audience? Particularly when you're the goat?
This is a question that quickly becomes little more than a weak running gag, as we segue into a limp Birdee Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Our heroine packs up her nine-year-old daughter, Bernice (Mae Whitman), and heads back home to Smithville, Texas. (What the hell kind of name is Birdee? And has anyone been christened Bernice since sometime before the Truman administration?) She moves in with her mama, crotchety but wise Ramona Calvert (Gena Rowlands, who created a very different character in the similar but superior Something to Talk About). Papa (James N. Harrell), diminished by both Alzheimer's and a stroke, is in a nursing home. Meanwhile Ramona, an arch-kook, has kept his taxidermy work alive: This bit of forced whimsy suggests a number of morbidly interesting possibilities that the movie never takes advantage of.
Back in Texas, Birdee is immediately confronted with the plight of the discarded trophy wife. Since she and her husband got married fresh out of high school, where they were homecoming king and queen, and since she has never had to develop any skills, knowledge or recognizable personality, she finds herself totally adrift, with only Mama's gruff but loving advice to guide her.
Now, Hope Floats is allegedly set in 1998: Still, all Mama can think about is setting Birdee up with a new guy. (Admittedly, this will get her out of the house faster than, say, helping her to establish some kind of independent existence.) Birdee, in a rare moment of insight, is more interested in getting herself a job, but it's never occurred to her that she doesn't know how to do anything.
She expresses an interest in photography -- a field whose requirements are vaguer in most people's minds than, say, computer programming or medicine, and which is therefore more acceptable to the audience. We see lots of scenes of Birdee taking pictures -- watch the Birdee -- but we almost never see the pictures themselves, and this, her sole interest, eventually disappears as the script contrives a romance for her. (Just as well, actually: As it turns out, Birdee can't even learn how to run one of those one-hour developing machines.)
The man in question is Justin Matisse (Harry Connick Jr.), who has been carrying a torch for Birdee since high school. For much of the film, his crush seems to be entirely based on how pretty she is -- which makes sense, since there's nothing else there to respond to. But eventually he gives a speech that feels pasted in, as though to refute the notion that his feelings are entirely shallow -- about that special "fire" she had in high school and how she's lost sight of it but he can still see it within her.
But, from the evidence of the film, any fire Birdee ever had must have burned at a pretty low candlepower: She is one dim bulb. In fact, she apparently went through high school in some sort of anointed daze: It's barely a decade past graduation, and she's unable to remember any of her classmates or to have realized that the other girls all hated her guts anyway.
It's never clear just how Justin represents an improvement over Hubby (besides the fact that even Connick is a better actor than Pare). Besides repeatedly telling Birdee how pretty she is and dropping gems of clunky folk mots, like "Dancin's just a conversation between two people; talk to me," Justin's main way of relating to her is to shush her whenever she balks at his romantic attentions. (Memories of Connick in Copycat don't help either; we keep expecting to find that Justin has been building some psycho shrine to Birdee's memory ever since high school.)
All this might be interesting if there were some irony to it. Or if the film were an expose of the standard, unrealistic story convention by which everyone has some hidden value that will be made apparent to the audience. Birdee could have been a tragic figure: What do we do with the fading beauty queen who really has no other qualities? How do we affirm her human worth?
In the eyes of director Forest Whitaker and screenwriter Steven Rogers, however, the answer is simple: Simply find another condescending guy who will treat her like a porcelain doll. If you look like Sandra Bullock, why bother with a vocation ... or an education ... or even a personality?
Directed by Forest Whitaker. With Sandra Bullock, Harry Connick Jr., Gena Rowlands, Mae Whitman and Michael Pare.