Ann Hornaday Movie Review: 'All About Steve' With Sandra Bullock, Bradley Cooper

Sandra Bullock plays a romantically challenged crossword puzzle enthusiast who develops an unhealthy obsession with a news cameraman (Bradley Cooper). Video by Fox
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

There are few things more cinematically satisfying than Sandra Bullock in her wheelhouse. She's at her best in roles that understate her femininity, whether she's playing a spunky tomboy or a power-suited shrew, and that capitalize on her feisty, Everygirl appeal.

She's not afraid of unflattering pratfalls, and her face possesses that rare plasticity that allows her to seem both beautiful and imperfect, dazzling and approachable. As her hit romantic comedy "The Proposal" proved earlier this summer, there's nothing filmgoers like better than Our Sandy playing to strengths that are no less considerable for seeming so natural.

But if Bullock in her comfort zone is a thing of real, if modest pleasure, watching as she contorts herself into a role that's all wrong for her is singularly excruciating. "All About Steve," a gruesome, aggressively unfunny movie about a crossword-puzzle constructor who stalks a man she just met across the country, may get an asterisk on Bullock's résumé as the most misguided move of her career.

"The Proposal" may not have joined Ernst Lubitsch or even Nora Ephron in the pantheon of great rom-coms, but it had its high points, especially in the sharp, understated chemistry Bullock had with co-star Ryan Reynolds. In "Steve," Bullock is largely on her own, adrift and unhinged in a movie that finds humor in jokes about rape and babies born with three legs.

Bullock plays the risibly named Mary Magdalene Horowitz, who creates crossword puzzles for a Sacramento newspaper while living with her parents (her apartment is being fumigated, which viewers are supposed to find hilarious). When Mary's parents set her up with a news cameraman named Steve (Bradley Cooper), she has low expectations, but when he turns out to be gorgeous, she runs upstairs to put on a red bustier and low-cut blouse. She mauls him before they've even pulled away from the curb.

Like a deranged combination of Jim Carrey in "The Cable Guy" and Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," Mary embarks on her single-minded obsession, following Steve as he travels across the country filming the latest telegenic catastrophe.

If Mary's character isn't unsavory enough -- she's a polyglot psychopath fueled by a disturbing sexual compulsion -- she presents an equally off-putting physical package, dressed in ridiculous red patent leather boots and wearing her hair in an unflattering blond shag. (When Mary and Steve first meet it's the Battle of the Bad Highlights.)

Much of what's offensive and insufferable about "All About Steve" can be laid at the feet of screenwriter Kim Barker, best known for inflicting "License to Wed" on the world. Why do these people still earn obscene amounts of money churning out dreck? And why do stars like Bullock keep paying them?

Lisping and mugging her way through a meandering, nonsensical story, Bullock isn't credible for one minute as a hapless, unstable nerd. At 45, she looks fantastic, and there's no reason why she shouldn't be eager to play her own age. As a character who's easily meant to be 10 or 15 years her junior, Bullock delivers the acting equivalent of mutton dressing as lamb.

Meanwhile Cooper, fresh from his own triumph this summer in "The Hangover," escapes largely unscathed, as does Thomas Haden Church, who steals the movie in a sly, funny reboot of the classic dumb blond.

By turns cruel and unusual, "All About Steve" finally culminates in a dreadful climax involving a group of hearing-impaired children trapped in a mine shaft, which the filmmakers turn into a ham-handed critique of contemporary media and conformism.

In her other, better movies Bullock has managed her characters' inevitable transformations with her wry, self-deprecating aplomb intact. No such luck in "All About Steve," where a little bit of dignity is crushed with each step of Mary's red go-go boots.

What was Our Sandy thinking? Will she ever come back? "All About Steve" is a puzzle, all right. Just one not worth solving.

All About Steve (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content.

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