When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
2009 was a rollercoaster year for Sandra Bullock. The then-45-year-old reestablished her rom-com cred by leading The Proposal to box office domination; turned in an Oscar-winning performance in The Blind Side; and made All About Steve, one of the most hated romantic comedies of all time. That’s some impressive time management, especially when you consider Bullock showed up to collect her Oscar for The Blind Side and her Razzie for Steve on back-to-back nights. Though the star had spent years shepherding All About Steve’s development, she at least had a good sense of humor when it bellyflopped with critics. If only some of that humor had made it into the movie itself.
A punchline since the moment it debuted, All About Steve joins My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Failure To Launch, and The Ugly Truth as among the worst rom-coms I’ve ever covered in this column. But not since Gigli have I been as downright baffled by how a film this bizarre could’ve been conceived in the first place, let alone filmed and edited without someone realizing what a monstrosity they were making. In one early scene, Bullock’s socially stunted crossword puzzle creator Mary Horowitz claims that a puzzle’s greatness can be determined by asking three simple questions: “Is it solvable? Is it entertaining? Does it sparkle?” And while it’s easy enough to say that All About Steve isn’t entertaining and lacks any kind of sparkle, I did become a bit obsessed with trying to solve it.
My initial guess was that All About Steve started life as a quirky indie dark comedy that lost its bite as it became a mainstream vehicle—although that seems less likely once you consider that screenwriter Kim Barker’s only other credit is the horrendous 2007 John Krasinski/Mandy Moore/Robin Williams rom-com License To Wed. In the production notes, Bullock celebrates how All About Steve’s interwoven stories all “come down to the fact that not fitting [in] often means you’re really standing out,” which speaks to a cheesy earnestness the film awkwardly tries to shoehorn into the cringe comedy. But the most interesting quote comes from co-star Thomas Haden Church, who told Entertainment Weekly, “Sandy always said her schematic was Wedding Crashers. She wanted it to be a dude comedy, except about a woman.” According to EW, “[Bullock] spent years developing the script until her character resembled the kind of sexually frustrated goofball usually written only for men.”
So after years as America’s sweetheart, Bullock wanted a chance to go big and weird with her comedy, and spearheaded a project that would allow her to do just that. With her blonde shag haircut, shiny knee-high red leather boots, and hyper-verbal tendencies, Bullock plays Mary like a cross between Erin Brockovich, Rain Man, and a horny 13-year-old girl. All About Steve is interested in the question of what life is like for someone who’s smart and kind but also socially awkward in a way that makes it hard for them to interface with the rest of the world. And despite what dozens of reviews and the Razzies might say, I don’t actually think Bullock’s performance is the biggest problem with All About Steve. Mary is supposed to be strange and off-putting with an edge of endearing heart, and Bullock’s take is at least committed and cohesive in a way that could potentially work if placed in the right context.
The problem is All About Steve has absolutely no idea how it wants to present Mary. At times, it seems to see her as a sympathetic but ultimately deeply misguided woman who needs a major lesson in boundaries—like Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But other times, it sees her as an optimistic, upbeat, Paddington-style figure whose innate, quirky goodness changes everyone around her for the better. In that version, it’s not Mary who needs to change; it’s everyone else who needs to learn to let their freak flag fly. Yet in trying to straddle both modes at once, All About Steve fails to land on anything resembling a consistent tone.
Because Mary’s role within the narrative keeps shifting, the movie has no idea how to write any of the supporting players around her either. That starts with Steve (Bradley Cooper), a handsome cable news cameraman who’s nice enough to Mary on their blind date, even as she tries to jump his bones before they’ve even left the driveway of her parents’ house. Steve is into the encounter until Mary’s non-stop chatting starts to give him bad vibes. Then he puts on the brakes, fakes a work emergency, and placates Mary with a vague platitude about how he wishes she could be there as he heads off on the road to cover the latest breaking news. When Mary takes that brush-off literally and decides to follow Steve across the country, the movie initially seems to be on his side: She’s crossed over into full-on stalker behavior and he’s right to be freaked out!
In the end, however, Steve is the who one apologizes to Mary for saying something he didn’t mean—as if refusing to sleep with someone and then tossing off a vague “I really wish you could be there” is the worst sin a self-proclaimed “nice guy” could commit. Instead of making Steve a genuinely morally dubious character, which could’ve been much more interesting, All About Steve gives all the dubious morality to his pompous news anchor colleague, Hartman Hughes (Haden Church). For truly inexplicable reasons, Hartman actively encourages Mary’s stalking by repeatedly telling her that Steve loves her but is too afraid to admit it. So instead of giving Mary and Steve arcs that intersect and influence one another—which would be the natural choice for a deconstructed romantic comedy—All About Steve makes its two leads pawns in the mid-life crisis of its third most important character.
Ironically, considering its title, All About Steve has focus issues. Huge swathes of its runtime are devoted to satirizing the sensationalism of cable news, which is a through line that never really dovetails with anything else except for the movie’s vague “people sure can be weird, huh?” sentiment. Since Hartman, Steve, and their producer, Angus (an unexpectedly restrained Ken Jeong), are apparently their network’s only crew for a nation’s worth of news, they’re sent to cover a hostage situation in Arizona, a medical battle in Oklahoma, a hurricane in Texas, and, ultimately, a crisis in Colorado where a bunch of deaf children have fallen through the ground into an abandoned mine. The last of those becomes the site of one of the film’s characteristically lazy physical comedy gags, in which Mary falls into the mine while running towards Steve, never mind that the sink hole is fully visible in a highly cordoned off area.
So a film that should obviously end with Mary using her love of language to save the day instead ends with her using a hitherto unmentioned knowledge of physics to MacGyver a pulley system that can get her and a trapped child out of the mine. But not before a superfluous sequence where Hartman jumps in there too, because All About Steve is nothing if not committed to giving Haden Church screentime. The initial promise of exploring what makes someone like Mary tick ultimately boils down to the reveal that she wears her boots because they make her toes “feel like 10 friends on a camping trip!” It’s apparently the sort of intimate detail that can only be shared in a life-or-death situation.
If All About Steve has an interesting germ of an idea at its center, it’s that finding friends who understand you is more important than locking down a romantic partner who checks off all the conventional boxes. In fact, I’d argue that a better version of All About Steve would’ve kept Steve as a more remote figure and instead focused on Mary’s burgeoning friendship with fellow oddballs Elizabeth (Katy Mixon) and Howard (DJ Qualls), who agree to join her nation-hopping romantic quest. Mixon and Qualls bring much more humanity to their wacky characters than Cooper and Haden Church do to their more conventional archetypes. And they have better chemistry with Bullock, too. Alas, glimpses of that more cohesive dramedy are buried under a mineshaft’s worth of studio comedy plasticity from first-time feature director Phil Traill.
In the end, All About Steve is too weird to be written off as just a “bad romantic comedy” but also too off-putting to be worth sitting through for some “so bad it’s good” fun. The best thing to come out of it is probably Bullock’s Razzie acceptance speech, where she challenges the audience to give better line readings of her character’s dialogue than what she gave in the film. Bullock delivers the speech with the sort of wry, authoritative confidence that’s become her bread and butter in the latter portion of her career. For a comedy about the joy of living outside the box, All About Steve makes a far better case for sticking with what you know.
Next time: We celebrate 50 years of Harold And Maude.