For the first 20 minutes, Forces Of Nature plays like a traditional rom-com-cum-road movie. You know the score: strait-laced boy meets free-spirited girl, they start off fighting, they overcome numerous obstacles, they fall in love... But just before tedium sets in at the prospect of two hours in the company of wooden-looking Affleck and panda-faced Bullock (bit of an eye make-up problem there), it heads off in a completely different direction. The romance isn't between the characters you'd expect, the dialogue is genuine and funny, and the cinematography is incredible.
All credit here must go to director of photography Elliot Davis and the visual effects team at Pacific Data Images (the company responsible for Twister). In a movie like this, it would have been easy to just shoot the two good-looking leads in a flattering light and hope that would provide enough visual excitement to keep the audience happy.
Alongside the evident charms of Bullock and Affleck, though, there are whole weather landscapes that almost seem like characters in their own right. Every thunderstorm, every sunset and every raindrop is shot with exaggerated beauty to illustrate the power of the elements to great effect. And the finale, in which two characters talk unaware, as a maelstrom whirls around them, is as breathtaking as anything in an effects-stuffed disaster flick.
None of this would make a jot of difference if the rest of the movie sucked. Luckily, Affleck and Bullock work well together and have time to explore their characters on a deeper level while still keeping the jokes flowing. Affleck loosens up as the story progresses, so much so that one scene finds him standing on a table in a gay bar getting his kit off to raise cash. And even Bullock's Sarah becomes less panda-eyed and kooky as she faces up to her past and accepts some home truths.
Among the rest of the cast, Steve Zahn - - Total Film's favourite supporting actor in the wake of his sterling work in That Thing You Do!, Out Of Sight and You've Got Mail - - is great as Ben's best friend. More interestingly, the character of Ben's financée, Bridget, is allowed to develop away from the main road-movie action. Once she reaches her home town of Savannah she has to deal with bickering parents and ardent ex-boyfriend Steve (the late David Strickland, whose real-life suicide just after the film's release in the States came as a huge shock). Bridget also has a chance to start another life away from Ben; that she's not some sterotypical Bitch Queen From Hell makes Ben's final decision all the more difficult - and entertaining.
This is a brave, brash, funny and thoroughly romantic comedy that makes a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood schmaltz. Bullock returns to form, Affleck confirms his leading man status and the maelstrom scenes go down a storm.