Remember When Ben Affleck Tried to Be a Rom-Com Guy?

Forces of Nature was just a long advert for tearaway track pants
Screenshot: HBO

Ben Affleck is currently in the midst of a reluctant rom-com hero renaissance (Benaissance? Am I required to make that joke here?) in the form of his stay-at-home relationship with burgeoning star Ana de Armas, a partnership that mostly seems to consist of dog walks and carrying trays of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee near her, looking pensive while the paparazzi snaps photos. But just as the very roots of the word renaissance mean “born again,” there can be no second coming without a first coming, and Ben Affleck as a slightly annoyed romantic lead who doesn’t quite know if he even wants to be included in this narrative is déjà vu for those familiar with mid-to-late 1990s rom-coms. Between the years of 1995 and 2004, Ben made an honest (albeit mostly failed) bid to become a bankable romantic comedy leading man. And perhaps the weirdest of those attempts was 1999's, quite frankly, very depressing romantic comedy Forces of Nature, in which he starred alongside Sandra Bullock, who would go on to become much more successful in the genre.

The 1990s were a time when a new romantic comedy was written, produced, and shot roughly every half hour, and studios threw stars who’d proven bankable in other roles together at random, hoping for a spark that might bring in When Harry Met Sally money. Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock were a pairing that probably looked good on paper, but on-screen looked liked Bullock trying desperately to convince Affleck to play along as he scanned the set for the nearest exit. There are many perfectly serviceable rom-coms that should be plucked from the forgotten ’90s movies vault, but Forces of Nature is absolutely in there for a reason, though it is an excellent study in watching two normally magnetic actors absolutely repel the fuck out of one another.

Forces of Nature is an oddly bleak romantic scenario from the jump: Affleck’s character, also named Ben, is en route to his wedding in Savannah, Georgia, and seated on the plane next to a hot lady in a lot of eyeliner, Sarah, as she flees an emotionally abusive husband to sell their Georgia bagel shop in order to use the money to get back a 6-year-old son of whom she’s lost custody. It’s not an ideal time for either to be pursuing new romantic interests, but the central idea of the film seems to be “shit happens, so maybe just let hot people dance and kiss despite their other commitments.” When the plane crashes, the pair have a scant few days to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles their way to their various engagements in Savannah, stopping by K-Mart along the way for some very ’90s tearaway track pants that I still covet 21 years later and nearly-but-not-quite boning several times.

The film is an early entry into the world of the Marc Lawrence-penned rom-com and introduces Sandra Bullock, who would later go on to star in other Lawrence films like Miss Congeniality and Two Weeks Notice, as his occasional muse. However, the role of Sarah was a brief departure for Bullock, who already had a rom-com hit with While You Were Sleeping a few years before. The more typical Sandra Bullock romantic lead would soon become a Type A workaholic who must swap a need for control for romance with a man who teaches her to relax a little. In Forces of Nature, however, Bullock plays the exact opposite: that of the messy problem lady whose haphazard approach to life at first grates on the nerves of the Type A male lead before he finally surrenders to her whimsy— She smokes pot! She signs him up to strip dance at a gay bar! Kooky and sexy!

Yet one of the reasons Bullock is so good in her control freak turns is the fact that her natural charisma offsets the rigidity of those characters. So when she finally loosens up and dances, the revelation feels like a victory, as opposed to the inverse Bullock in Forces of Nature, where her still-compelling charm makes the character arc of “being a slightly better mother” a really depressing denouement in what is meant to be a lighthearted, low-stakes film.

And in the role of “slightly annoyed and uncomfortable man usually wearing a bowling shirt and/or blazer” is Ben Affleck, who would go on to play iterations of this man in Bounce with then-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow, Gigli opposite then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, and in his own press junkets for films of which he seemed less than proud, giving rise to the “Sad Affleck” meme. But for all his practice, the role in Forces of Nature, much like Sandra Bullock’s messy turn, doesn’t quite suit him. It could be the lack of chemistry between the two leads, who seem content to stand as far apart from one another as possible while their banter makes one another simultaneously smug and sleepy. Of the two, though, it’s Ben, swallowed in his oversized ’90s bowling shirt, who either oversells it or has tapped into a deep wellspring of Stanislavskian motivation, desiring not just to be liberated from this road trip but from his contract for this film entirely.

Throughout her career, Bullock has managed to make movies that are perhaps not very well-written or plotted, such as Hope Floats, much more enjoyable than they should be. It’s her special gift as an actor, which makes her an ideal romantic comedy star since rom-coms are often entirely implausible and filled with sentences that should be embarrassing but also can be incredibly satisfying if everyone commits to playing along with the ruse. Affleck’s downfall, on the other hand, has been choosing projects that do not seem to play to his strengths as an actor or that he doesn’t seem to want to be in, including that whole Batman venture and Forces of Nature. When Ben gets embarrassed by a movie’s potential for badness, the entire project falls apart. His best work comes from playing parts in more complicated, “thinky” thrillers that put his sometimes smarminess and surly discomfort in response to that knee-jerk smarminess on full display, like Gone Girl or the sadly-unseen-by-anyone-but-me State of Play.

It’s not that Ben Affleck isn’t appealing—even grimacing for the cameras carrying a tray of coffee, he’s the guy at a party loudly proclaiming he didn’t want to come to that one finds oneself standing too close to, trying to convince him the party isn’t that bad. The problem is, when the movie is that bad, one tends to agree with grouchy Ben that we should all get out of here.

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DISCUSSION

bananabunny
Bananabunny

Ha! Scenes from this movie were filmed in the small town where I used to live. Walking my dog one afternoon while heavily pregnant, I happened to end up on the edge of their film set, without realizing what was going on. I noticed a few people standing around talking, and that’s when I spotted Ben Affleck standing in the center of the group. So I walked over out of curiosity.

Good Will Hunting had just come out the year before, and I was a big fan, so I asked him some questions about their writing process (an interest of mine). It was so long ago, and I’m embarrassed to admit now that I have no recollection of his answers. BUT... I what I do recall clearly is that since the other people in the group were just asking for autographs, I asked him to autograph my huge pregnant belly (as a joke):

He hesitated for a second when the woman beside me handed him a sharpie.

Ben Affleck: “Ummmm... wait, is that ok to do? I mean... uh, like, couldn’t that hurt the baby or something?”

Bananabunny: “Ha! I don’t think so, but I was just kidding. But I did love Good Will Hunting so much that I’ve decided to name the baby, ‘Ben.’”

Ben Affleck: “Wait... what?!! Oh my god, that’s so cool!!! Are you serious?”

Bananabunny: “No.”

We laughed and that’s when we started talking about Good Will Hunting. ;) One of the PAs came over and motioned to her watch, offering him an out, I assume. But he politely declined and continued our conversation. He and I chatted for probably 10-15 minutes, and I was floored that he would actually spend some of his break talking with a regular person.