Airplane crashes, car wrecks, fires, angry mobs -- those are all small potatoes, according to "Forces of Nature." In this sexed-up version of "Planes, Trains & Automobiles," the greatest trauma a man can face is getting married. En route to the altar, blurb writer Ben (Ben Affleck) must survive not just an unholy assortment of travel-related disasters, but the charms of Sandra Bullock as well. And, predictably enough, it's a journey that ends with marital bliss -- or permanent shackles, depending on your point of view.
Ben's friends already know where they stand on the matter. As "Forces" opens, his posse is giddily taunting him at his bachelor party, exhorting him into one last awkward shimmy with "Juanita the Bull Tamer" before settling down forever with his WASPy fiancie, Bridget (Maura Tierney). His amigos, particularly best friend Alan (an enjoyably manic Steve Zahn), can't resist whooping it up with the unconcealed relief of desperate wagerers in the company of the guy who drew the short straw.
Ben, on the other hand, appears rock solid in his willingness to commit. The next day, he's cooing stomach-turning baby talk into an airport phone before heading down to Savannah to tie the knot. But his lovey-dovey assuredness is about to be thrown off track. He finds himself seated next to Sarah (Bullock), the luscious embodiment of all the freedoms he's about to surrender. When the plane advantageously crashes on takeoff, Ben and Sarah hotfoot it down to Georgia together, via a series of successively unreliable modes of transport including train, car (twice), bus and shoe-leather express. It's the kind of epic, disaster-fraught pilgrimage that would have made Moses shrug his shoulders and turn tail. But getting there, it turns out, is the easy part. The real challenge will be whether Ben can endure the journey with his affections in the same place they were when he started.
As with "Four Weddings and a Funeral" -- and every other film in which someone is wearing a big white dress for the last 10 minutes -- "Forces" is a meditation on love, fate and the rituals we humans create to justify them both. As Ben and Sarah wend their way to Savannah, Ben becomes preoccupied with whether somebody's trying to tell him something. Are the gods conspiring to keep him from marrying the wrong woman? Or are they merely testing his loyalty? Affleck, a subtle and comedically gifted performer, is believable both in his dazed puzzlement and his uptight, fretful demeanor. He's a quiet, easily ruffled guy who has grown quite comfortable walking around with a big stick up his posterior, suddenly jarred into the paralyzing fear that it may never come out. The limitation of "Forces" is that for most of the movie, Ben doesn't have a clue what to do about it. Like Dermot Mulroney in "My Best Friend's Wedding," Affleck spends large amounts of screen time looking gosh darn bewildered by pretty girls. His ultimate choice seems less like a passionate affirmation of soul-matedness than a slouchy surrender to the easiest option available.
His mental flip-flopping isn't helped by Sarah, whose go-with-the-flow insouciance seems more and more like total apathy as the film progresses. She's a multiply married jack-of-all-trades whose zest for life is apparent from her penchant for heavy eyeliner and beating on her chest at inopportune moments. While her joie de vivre may be amusing, Bullock plays it as someone who is too self-absorbed to register anyone else on her radar.
Early on, Ben balks at the idea of the two of them traveling together, citing their "chemistry" and "connection," but Sarah's blank wonderment at the very idea persuades him otherwise. That exchange is the film's most truthful moment. The two stars are both cute as buttons, but they never seem especially hot and bothered by each other. Even when Bullock's assisting Affleck through a striptease at a ramshackle bar, the frisson between them is more playful than romantic. And when at last Ben finally plants a big wet one on Sarah, he seems to be doing it because he doesn't know quite what else to do with himself. No wonder Bullock responds with little more than a full-body heave of indifference.
The fault isn't all in the chemistry, or lack thereof. The more pressing conundrum of "Forces" is that writer Marc Lawrence paints his lead character into a morally ambiguous corner. If Ben settles down with Bridget, he's letting go of the impulsive, attractive wild woman he's just found. If he ditches her at the altar, he's a dog. While "Forces" deserves props for attempting something more complex than the usual my-girlfriend-is-a-shrew triangle, its ambiguity also sacrifices the conviction of its outcome. Neither woman emerges as a satisfying right choice for Ben -- who himself doesn't seem like that fantastic a catch. Sarah is fun-loving but flaky and troubled, and Bridget isn't anything at all (she doesn't even appear to have a job). His best option, as has already been suggested to him ad nauseam along the way, appears to be to continue to live the single life. Sure, a busload of cuddly septuagenarians offers the faint hope that connubial bliss is possible, but almost everyone else in Ben's path is all too eager to graphically describe his or her own matrimonial mistakes to him. Who'd want to jump the broom after such a convincing bevy of negative testimonials?
At a key moment in the film, Ben settles into his hotel bed and attempts to drown out the crooning of temptress Sarah bathing beyond the next door. Even the radio is conspiring against him -- Ben flicks on the sound system only to be greeted with the enticing command to "Love the One You're With." Both in the song and for Ben, however, it's an imperative that seems born more out of bored convenience than real urgency. It sums up the mood of the whole movie. Over and over, "Forces of Nature" presents the elements in all their dramatic glory -- fires blaze, winds howl, hailstones rain down from the heavens. But at the center of every swirling storm is a place of placid inertia, safe and still -- and not very exciting. And it's where Affleck and Bullock spend most of their time, floating amiably but never doing enough to truly connect.