All About Steve should've been about Sandra

All About Steve should've been about Sandra

It is reasonable to assume that the delay of All About Steve’s release, from late February to Labor Day weekend, is not a sign of studio confidence. But with Sandra Bullock resuscitated by The Proposal, officially the highest-grossing summer romantic comedy ever, and Bradley Cooper proven bankable by The Hangover, it’s now or never for the tale of Bullock’s nutty crossword puzzle designer following Cooper’s TV news cameraman all across the country.

What could Fox have been so afraid of? It should be easy to shrug off a winkingly mundane, less cynical riff on the 1950 classic All About Eve, in which Anne Baxter worms her way into Bette Davis’ life and career. But All About Steve is inherently subversive.

Crazy in love? Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper try to make good on their recent box office successes in All About Steve.

For starters, it demands gender parity in quirk-worshipping comedies about maladjusted adults living with their parents until deciding to stalk people who aren’t interested (and in fact aren’t interesting); where Management, a limited release from earlier this summer, gave us Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston, now we have Sandy and Bradley opening wide.

What’s more, here is the unlikeliest of movie protagonists: a clever and resourceful cruciverbalist, rightly likened to “a talking encyclopedia” by the object of her affection, eye-catchingly clad in clingy short skirts and bright red go-go boots, spouting factoids with just a hint of nerd-girl lisp and pushing middle age most certainly on her own terms (of which there are many). She’s like a superhero that didn’t take, if only for our collective cultural failure of nerve. Tellingly, she is a woman who has learned to apologize in 17 languages.

A relationship, she figures, is like a crossword: “The worst thing you can do is leave it unfinished.” And so she’s off, with the cameraman’s vain, inane on-air reporter pal (Thomas Haden Church) egging her on for no good reason, while a more likely romantic prospect (D.J. Qualls) goes mostly unnoticed.

Sometimes Bullock’s impulse to debase herself for empathetic laughs becomes its own kind of vanity, a healthy populism perverted into approval-seeking desperation. This is one of those times. But there is also a sense of real risk here, and real discovery. In the combination of this actor with this character, there is real potential for greatness.

Saying so is what you might call looking on the bright side. As screenwriter Kim Barker and director Phil Traill strenuously differentiate a vapid, inhuman media-industrial complex from a folk community of affable weirdo vigilists who drift between national soft-news events like Phish fans, the satire goes limp, the sincerity gets cheaply sentimental, and the potential gets squandered. As becomes clear very quickly, what Fox could have been so afraid of is the fact that All About Steve is a mostly unfunny mess of a movie.