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All About Steve

[Christianity Today Movies; September 4, 2009]

Stars: 2

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Steve), Sandra Bullock (Mary Horowitz), Thomas Hayden Church (Hartman Hughes), Ken Jeong (Angus)

You expect certain things from a Sandra Bullock comedy, and if that’s what you’re looking for, “All About Steve” will not disappoint. She’s perky and quirky, slim and lovely, and a very good sport about looking unglamorous (here she survives both a tornado and a fall into an abandoned mine). You’ll be unsurprised to learn that romantic complications arise, followed by a happy ending.  So if you enjoyed “The Proposal” or “Two Weeks Notice,” you’ll surely get a kick out of “All About Steve.”

Now that I think about it, though, there actually is a surprise. Though the ending is a happy one, it’s not conventional, and not the one I was expecting. In fact, there are elements in this film that were original and pleasing. Why, then, is the overall impression so bland?

To start at the beginning, Mary Horowitz is a cruciverbalist, a crossword-puzzle writer, and she supplies a weekly puzzle for the Sacramento Herald.  In an opening montage we see her composing a puzzle with her favorite blue felt-tipped pen, and then follow her as she walks through the city, tickled to see citizens everywhere working out her clues. At the paper’s offices she does her over-eager best to convince her editor that they should let her supply a daily puzzle.

We’re picking up that there is something odd about Mary. She’s a fountain of knowledge, and maintains a constant stream of cheery, free-associating comments, oblivious to the discomfort of her hearers. (Even those who can’t hear her get worn down; a deaf girl, later in the film, signs, “I don’t know what you’re saying, but you talk too much.”) She seems to have no idea of what is appropriate to say or do; she could be an ambassador for Oddballs Without Boundaries. Bullock has given the character a perfect set of physical traits and expressions. She walks like a child who’s been admonished to walk, not run, and at any moment seems likely to go bounding away like a spring lamb. Her obsession with trivia and her beloved vocation seems off-kilter as well. “Be normal,” her editor pleads: go out on a date, have some fun. Mary protests: “Crosswording is the most spectacular fun a person can have. Without passing out.”

 But that evening she does go out on a date, and that’s when the trouble begins. Her mom has arranged a blind date with a friend’s son, and Steve—a roving cameraman for the news network CCN—turns out to be an attractive guy. As soon as they are in his car she hurls herself at him, and during their brief grappling he says, “It’s lonely on the road. I wish you were there with me.” But at that moment his cell phone rings, and he’s ordered to leave immediately for a breaking story in Tucson. As Mary departs, Steve murmurs, “Thank God. See you later, crazy person.”

 That’s the setup, and the remainder of the story follows Mary as she trails Steve from one news scene to another, under the mistaken impression that they are a couple. She is serenely intransigent on the subject. “I’m a guy. Guys say things like that. I didn’t mean it,” Steve tells her. “Then how do I know that you mean what you’re saying now?” she responds with a confident smile.

 The weak spot in the story is precisely this relationship between Mary and Steve. Brad Cooper may be a fine actor, but he’s a misfit for this role. The character is made of cardboard to begin with, and when Steve exhibits distinctive personality traits, they feel inorganic and don’t make sense.  (Steve would not be stupid enough to think he could escape Mary by wearing a false moustache and wig, while still driving the CCN van.) On the other hand, the star reporter in the news team, Hartman Hughes, is terrific. Thomas Hayden Church improves a conventional dumb-TV-reporter character with an ox-like, sluggish delivery that is effectively hilarious.  When Steve throws a snack bag out the van’s window, Hartman tells him, “Give a hoot. Don’t pollute.” It’s not a funny line, except that Church speaks it the way an especially earnest Neanderthal might have. Any time Church is on-screen he steals the show, which is a perk for the audience but doesn’t help the unity of the story.

 The surprising element turns out to be a group of equally-odd people whom Mary meets at a news scene. They are protesting at a hospital, where a baby born with three legs is scheduled to have the extra leg removed. When a sweet-faced, plump young woman with a Southern accent tells Mary that they are on the “pro-leg” side, it is not hard to hear it as “pro-life.” These wierdos with their religious slogans look to be set up for ridicule, but as Mary travels with the girl and a geeky guy who carves appleheads we find that, for all their oddity, they are kind, courageous and faithful friends. Mary discovers that she fits right in with such folks, and that conforming to the general idea of normal is not actually necessary.

 This is an original turn, to present apparently pro-God protesters as genuinely good people. It’s original, as well, to throw away the “happily ever after” cliché in favor of true friendship with people who, like you, earn only the world’s contempt. Mary’s concluding line is, “Just find someone as normal as you are—or lots of them.” If only the rest of the film had been that original, that ready to be “abnormal.”


Talk About It

 1. Would you be friends with a person like Mary? What would be difficult about it? Would you try to change her? How?

 2. When do you feel like an outsider, or not “normal”?

 3. The film depicts TV news reporting as shallow and sensationalist, and as trivializing tragedy (while the anchor delivers news about children fallen down a mine shaft, a panel on the screen reads, “Next: Bear in a Jacuzzi.”) Do you think this is fair?  Can you envision a different, more responsible type of TV reporting? Or does the fact that there must always be a “Next” guarantee that nothing can ever go deep?


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