All About Steve (2009)

Mary Magdalene Horowitz is a cruciverbalist, which, as Will Shortz would know, is a crossword constructor. She plies her trade in Sacramento, which, if All About Steve is to be believed, is one tough and unforgiving town for a quirky cruciverbalist like Mary (Sandra Bullock).

She wears red patent go-go boots everywhere. She has hair of a somewhat indescribable color, cut in a shag. She suffers from chronic logorrhea. When she speaks, which is most of the time, her words tumble out in a rapid-fire, polyglot cascade, thoughts leading to other thoughts as she accesses her encyclopedic knowledge of facts both trivial and profound. She also has a slight lisp. For all of this, Mary (Sandra Bullock) is mocked by schoolchildren, and told by her editor to "Be normal." At least her parents (Howard Hesseman and Beth Grant) and her hamster accept her. And in a touch of originality for the movie, she is a smart woman who doesn't wear glasses. Instead, she squints, flaps her hands, and skitters around on those wondrous boots.

There is quite a bit that is original about All About Steve. There's also much that is utterly implausible about this odd comedy, although if we hold movies to a standard of plausibility, we might find ourselves staring at a lot of blank screens. The title is misleading, a play, obviously, on All About Eve (a completely unrelated Bette Davis classic). All About Steve is really all about Mary, although there is a Steve (Bradley Cooper), a TV news cameraman who ditches Mary during an awkward blind date. Steve chooses his words poorly during the ditching, which leaves Mary (who ought to know better, but doesn't) believing that she should follow him around the country as he pursues hot news stories with vain TV reporter Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church). Mary's instantaneous smittening and subsequent obsession with Steve leads to her losing her job as a crossword constructor, thus freeing her to pursue the cameraman across hill and dale. He, for his part, instantaneously decides she is a lunatic, which causes him to fear the cute, sweet woman in the red boots who is stalking him. For reasons that never become clear, Hartman Hughes decides to string Mary along, persuading her that Steve's unambiguous declarations of non-affection are not what they appear (to everyone but Mary) to be.

All About Steve could be a fairly unlikable movie if not for Bullock, who is about as appealing a performer as there is out there. Bullock has played forlorn and lovelorn before, but never a character as colorfully off-kilter as Mary. (Haden Church, Katy Mixon, D.J. Qualls, Ken Jeong, and M.C. Gainey provide able comic support.) Mary is a problem-solver, but also, of course, a problem constructor, and things go awry with Steve because she tries to solve the wrong problem. Or maybe the clues are ambiguous. But she is, at any rate, smart and nice, and because smart and nice generally equate with dorkiness in Movieworld, she's also pretty dorky.

All About Steve, written by Kim Barker and directed by Phil Traill, lands a few very softly satiric blows about sensationalist TV journalists. That said journalists are exploiting stories about children with disabilities may or may not be intended to make a point about Mary, whose social ineptitude might rise to the level of a disability on the most uncharitable reading, in which awkwardness and intelligence are handicaps. When Mary herself becomes a news story, she's described, pejoratively, as "freakishly intelligent," emphasis on the freakish. The point of All About Steve (and there is a point), is that Mary is really okay the way she is, smart and all, and she just needs to find the right crew (i.e. fellow dorks, proud to be weird) to hang with.

But about that implausibility. The plot of All About Steve is pretty random, throwing all sorts of unlikely obstacles in Mary's path, and then resolving everything in one big unlikely happy ending. It's also a little hard to believe that Mary turns stalker over a guy as boring as Steve. It is the hallmark of romantic comedies, of course, that they move heaven and earth to keep two people apart, when those two people are meant to be together. All About Steve is not, in that sense, a romantic comedy at all, since Mary and Steve really ought not be together, and would be far happier apart (and Steve is a dullard who really can't hold down his end of the romantic comedy seesaw). Heaven knows it, but that doesn't stop the earth from literally moving in the vicinity of Mary fairly often. All About Steve is a movie chimera, a screwball road trip romantic satire, but without genuine romance, and without much bite to the satire. It manages to be modestly screwy, and there is a road trip in there, and lots of Sandra Bullock, so it ultimately adds up to a movie that's a little more enjoyable than it really ought to be.

All About Sandy

Fans of Sandra Bullock, and I count myself among them, have a hard row to hoe. She's an adorable screen presence, and funny, beautiful, and talented. She's got great hair (most of the time). She's America's Sweetheart -- accessible, likable, the kind of gal you'd want to have a beer with. So why is she in so many lousy movies? All About Steve is surely not the worst movie she's ever been in -- compared to some of Sandy's movies, it's positively superb. But good movies? Well, there was Speed (1994), which for my money was a terrific, uncomplicated action movie, with a star-making, everywoman role for Bullock. And there was While You Were Sleeping (1995), a sweet, funny romance in which Bullock's comedic and dramatic abilities are evident. And there was... well, that was about it, really.

Speed 2: Cruise Control? Definitely a candidate for worst sequel ever, although Bullock redeemed herself by admitting as much. There were a few passable thrillers like A Time To Kill and The Net, comedies like Miss Congeniality, dramas like Crash (which, by many accounts was a fine movie, and won three Oscars, although I'm not a huge fan). Sandy is diverse -- she can do anything, and she gamely tries, despite making so many stinkers.

I have a certain fondness for Two If By Sea (1996), a quirky crime comedy costarring Denis Leary, which contributed a memorable and highly useful (if unprintable) line to my household's stock phrases. Bullock has made two movies with another actor I happen to like despite his similar tendency to make more lousy movies than good: Keanu Reeves. It's possible they are both getting an undeserved pass for Speed, but I'll publicly confess that I kind of like The Lake House (2006), which is a romantic time travel movie. I'll watch just about anything that's about time travel, and The Lake House is definitely... about time travel. On the other hand, Premonition (2007) might be about time travel, and it's really quite terrible, incomprehensible, and barely watchable. As I said at the time, it's Bullock who really carries the movie, with an appealing and empathetic performance that is far better than anything else about Premonition. This is a general truth about Sandra Bullock movies, and the Uplifting Effect of Sandy is doubtless familiar to most of her fans.