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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 of course All About Steve is more than that. And less. It is inherently subversive.

For starters, it demands gender parity in quirk-worshipping comedies about maladjusted adults who live with their parents until deciding to stalk uninterested (and in fact uninteresting) love interests; where Management gave us Steve Zahn creeping up on Jennifer Aniston in limited release earlier this summer, 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.

“All About Steve” is the title of a puzzle she writes to celebrate her newfound infatuation. It gets her fired, which in turn liberates the indulgence of her futile quest. 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, and their producer (Ken Jeong) not really minding, while a more likely romantic prospect (DJ Qualls) goes mostly unnoticed.

There is a fine moment when she hitches a ride with a trucker (M.C. Gainey) and is seen not only talking his ear off but also leafing through his operator’s manual. That’s a good detail. And when they part ways, she says, “Thanks for not raping me.” He says, “My pleasure.”

No, indeed, leading ladies don’t often take roles like this. 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. Screenwriter Kim Barker and director Phil Traill have let Bullock down. Hell, they’ve even let Cooper down. As the movie creaks and groans to differentiate a vapid, inhuman media-industrial complex from a folk community of affable weirdos who drift between national soft-news events like Phish fans between concerts, the satire goes limp, the sincerity gets cheaply sentimental, and every trace of that potential gets resolutely squandered.

As becomes clear very quickly, what Fox could have been so afraid of is the sad fact that All About Steve is just a big unfunny mess of a movie.


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