Note to screenwriters: If you’re going to write a comedy about a socially awkward smart person, try hanging out with smart people first. In the misbegotten rom com All About Steve, Sandra Bullock plays Mary Horowitz, a crossword-puzzle constructor (or “cruciverbalist,” as she puts it) for a Sacramento daily paper. Being a wordy, nerdy type, she sprinkles her conversations with well-worn foreign phrases (“Touché!”) and spouts trivia to anyone who will listen. Writer Kim Barker (License to Wed), apparently thought these quirks made Bullock’s character an endearing girl geek. But she comes off more like someone who memorizes the front page of Wikipedia every morning.
Crossed with a sociopath. Despite a job that requires her to produce exactly one puzzle per week, Mary has reached the advanced age of ... whatever (Bullock is fortyish) without acquiring a car, a steady residence outside her parents’ home, friends, a significant other or even non-cruciverbalism-related hobbies. Out on a blind date with hunky cable-news cameraman Steve (Bradley Cooper), she literally throws herself at him and commences making out while chattering nonstop about the spelling of his name and the significance of his shirt color.
In the gallery of sad-sack comic characters, there’s relatable pathetic (Paul Giamatti in Sideways, say) and there’s get-the-hell-away-from-me pathetic. This one is the latter. When Cooper realizes what he’s in for and none too gently expels Mary, her groping hands and her monologue from his truck, we may want to join him.
The problem is, Barker and director Phil Traill can’t seem to decide whether All About Steve is a girl-power film about a sweet weirdo learning to love herself or a wacky comedy about a fatuous newsman pursued by the world’s most annoying woman. Mistaking Steve’s winces of mortified terror for attraction, Mary hops on a bus and stalks him through the Southwest, where he’s roving with a windbag on-air reporter (Thomas Haden Church) in search of news.
At moments, All About Steve reaches such a pitch of idiocy it’s almost memorable. Among the “news” stories the sensation-seeking team covers are a three-legged baby; a gaggle of deaf children who tumble into a mineshaft; and the world’s worst CGI tornado, which somehow joins forces with a plague of locusts.
Church is funny as a fool striving for a newsman’s gravitas, though it’s nothing you haven’t seen him do before. When the reporter encourages Mary’s pursuit of Steve, hoping to exploit her encyclopedic brain to make himself look smarter on camera, the plot briefly seems to be going somewhere. But the broad parody never develops into a more cogent satire of would-be intellects who brandish factoids without knowing or caring about the big picture.
That’s what Mary is — besides being a motor mouth with whom it would be taxing to spend 10 minutes, let alone the 98 this film runs. To Bullock’s credit, her stone-faced, spacy delivery can be marginally cute. (She’s less tolerable when hopping up and down and squealing like a little girl.) Besides showing off his white teeth, Cooper doesn’t do anything but flash incredulous reaction shots. These are funny people in search of a comedy.
We can take one encouraging lesson from All About Steve: Even a well-oiled Hollywood machine sometimes goes haywire. For each slick and soulless rom com like Bullock’s hit The Proposal, a few mad movies like this one somehow slip through the focus-grouping and test-marketing process. Maybe someday, by happier accident, that machine will spit out a true and funny movie about a smart chick.