Picks and Pans Review: Hope Floats

updated 06/08/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/08/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sandra Bullock, Harry Connick Jr., Gena Rowlands, Mae Whitman

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Hope Floats is a feel-good movie you can feel good about liking. This romantic comedy embodies the best virtues of films too easily dismissed as "chick flicks." In telling the story of a former prom queen (Bullock) who returns home to her small Texas town from Chicago after learning—on national TV, no less—that her husband has been cheating on her, Hope concentrates on its characters, giving them time to breathe and room to grow. It features nary a car chase, explosion or loaded weapon, unless you count an errant volleyball that beans the school bully.

Bullock, as good here as she has ever been and showing far wider range (too much, sometimes), plays a woman who went straight from being high school prom queen to housewife and mother, never bothering to adjust her tiara in between. "Believe me, honey, once upon a time your mama knew what it was to shine," she tells her daughter (Whitman, a lovely little actress) as they head for Texas. Life there, it seems, has gone on, and maybe it's time Bullock did too. After some extended moping, she gets a job in a photo-developing shop (where extra copies of dirty pictures by locals are kept in a drawer for the staff's amusement), warily allows herself to be courted by a puckish handyman (Connick, charmingly goofy) who had a crush on her back in high school and comes to terms with her determinedly eccentric mom (Rowlands) and her doting dad, now in his own dotage with Alzheimer's.

What makes Hope float so buoyantly are its colorful characters, touching scenes (like the one where Bullock dances with her father at his rest home) and the deft dialogue, as when Bullock asks after her wayward sister, who has left a small son behind in Texas. "She's in L.A. doing a pilot," Rowlands tells Bullock.

"Oh," snaps Bullock, "what's he like?"

Hope's final destination is predictable, but how it makes the journey there isn't, for which full credit should go to director Forest Whitaker (Waiting to Exhale), tyro screenwriter Steven Rogers and the talented cast. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: What used to be called a women's picture, but it's a swell movie for everybody

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