Just how bad can a romantic comedy be?

"All About Steve" can make a person long for those heady days of Kate Hudson-Matthew McConaughey vehicles

Published September 4, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper in "All About Steve."
Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper in "All About Steve."

The romantic comedy has become a deeply problematic art form over the past 20 years or so: With very few exceptions (David Koepp's marvelous "Ghost Town," released last year, is the only one in recent memory I can recommend without reservation), contemporary filmmakers have barely been able to satisfy the basic requirements of the genre, let alone do anything fresh with it. And yet every once in a while, just when you think your jaw can't drop any lower in appalled amazement, comes a romantic comedy so lunkheaded and ill-conceived that it makes your average, idiotic Kate Hudson-Matthew McConaughey outing look like the reincarnation of Hepburn and Grant. Who in their right mind -- or even in their wrong one -- would come up with a stinker like "All About Steve"?

Sandra Bullock plays Mary Magdalene Horowitz (get it? she's Jewish and Catholic -- zany!), an unmarried, socially awkward, nearing-middle-age woman in a shaggy blondish hairdo and red vinyl go-go boots that she wears, incomprehensibly, all the time. Mary's job is to think up crossword puzzles for a Sacramento newspaper. That means she thinks a lot about words and concepts and factual minutiae a lot. And she talks about them a lot, too -- in fact, all the time: Her mouth motors on, leaving a Tourettish stream of chatter in its wake. When her parents (played by Howard Hesseman and Beth Grant) fix her up on a blind date, she's expecting the guy to be a dud. He turns out to be a handsome, polite cameraman (Bradley Cooper) who works for a CNN-type television network. Mary, in her perpetual cluelessness, doesn't know what to do with a guy she's interested in: She pounces on him in his SUV, clawing off her clothes (and his, too) even as she lets loose with a stream of bizarre patter about spelling, word usage and Lord knows what else.

Steve is kind of turned on by Mary's forthright approach, and by the way her breasts spill out of her lacy red bra. But her OED ADD? Not so much. So he makes up an excuse to get away from her. But she, in her naive and excited state, believes she and Steve are destined to be together. The next crossword puzzle she writes for her paper is filled with clues regarding her new paramour's eye color, his favorite foods and so forth, details that are of course just gibberish to the general public. In her crazed, dreamy state, she names her clueless love letter -- in case you haven't guessed -- "All About Steve."

Mary proceeds to stalk Steve -- albeit in a cute, innocent way -- egged on by his mischievous co-worker, Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church), a second-rate news reporter who loves to torture his cameraman. Ostensibly, the picture -- which is the feature-film debut of Phil Traill; the writer is Kim Barker, "License to Wed" -- is about embracing the joys of being abnormal, as Mary so clearly and buoyantly is. And Bullock does her best to make Mary's eccentricities charming. But even though Bullock's professionalism is certainly a marvel -- she comes at the role with a zeal that borders on the religious -- the character's jittery ramblings are insufferable. Cooper is bland and charmless, though it bears mentioning that his character is barely sketched out, let alone written. He has little to do except flash that disingenuous puka-shell smile.

If you're sensitive to romantic-comedy spoilers, please read no further. I mean it -- stop now. Because if you don't stop, you'll learn why Mary wears those atrocious red go-go boots all the time. The answer, which she reveals in a nutball monologue as she's waiting, along with a random deaf child (don't ask), to be rescued from the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft (please don't ask), is that "they make her toes feel like 10 friends on a camping trip."

The old-time British comedy duo Morecambe and Wise had a comedy routine in which one announced, "I have a long-felt want," to which the other responded, after a beat, "There's no answer for that." I feel that way about those toes on a camping trip. There are simply no words, other than run for the hills.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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