Opinion

Is The Lost City Sandra Bullock's send-off to her rom-com career?

Bullock seemingly bids adieu to her girl-next-door persona

Is there any other actress as strongly associated with romantic comedies, but has made as few big ones, as Sandra Bullock?

Yes, While You Were Sleeping, Two Weeks Notice, and The Proposal were big rom-com hits, and Sleeping, in particular, radiated the girl-next-door energy that made Bullock a star. But her other romances are flops (Two If By Sea; All About Steve), dramas (The Lake House; Hope Floats), or subplots in slapstickier action comedies (Miss Congeniality; The Heat).

Oddly, a major reason Bullock feels like such a rom-com star isn't a rom-com at all: It's Speed, the 1994 action-thriller that paired her with Keanu Reeves. Though it's mostly about a bus that can't slow down, the movie successfully frames the relationship between impromptu driver Bullock and hotshot cop Reeves as a whirlwind romance. It does this so well that a Keanu-less Speed 2 played about as well as if it were a sequel to You've Got Mail that replaced Tom Hanks with Chevy Chase.

Bullock's background makes her new film, The Lost City, both an outlier — at a time when she's worked less frequently and more seriously — and a throwback, since it's another adventure that unexpectedly throws her character toward a hunky man of action. The central joke of The Lost City is that the hunky man of action is faking it: Alan (Channing Tatum) is a professional cover model for a romance-adventure book series written by Loretta (Bullock). He's also a puppyish dim bulb without a lot of survival skills beyond his general physical fitness — just as Loretta is more reclusive and solitary than the heroine whose stories she's come to resent. They're forced into a real-life adventure when a rich twerp (Daniel Radcliffe) kidnaps Loretta, assuming she can help him find an actual lost city full of treasure. Alan gallantly and stupidly bounds in to save her.

An uncredited gloss on Romancing the Stone seems like something Bullock should have done several decades ago, when that girl-next-door persona was a more prominent part of her image. Bullock has aged gracefully into her 50s, which makes it a little trickier to buy her as a bookish wallflower — especially when her character is supposed to be well-traveled and successful, in a movie that treats a promotional book tour like a multimillion-dollar undertaking.

The Lost City attempts to solve this problem (and differentiate itself from Romancing the Stone, at least enough to avoid a lawsuit) by making Loretta a widow. She felt genuinely adventurous and inspired with her archeologist husband, and now prefers to withdraw from a world that reminds her of his passing. Though this threatens to swing the movie back toward the reductive contemporary idea that every extraordinary incident exists to heal people from a traumatic backstory, it also grants Loretta and Alan a more resonant and believable obstacle than obligatory odd-couple bickering.

This, combined with Bullock's recently expressed desire to make fewer movies and spend more time with her family, makes The Lost City play like a last hurrah for her as a traditional movie star. (She's already been making bleaker movies for Netflix; this is her first big-screen starring role in nearly four years.) But sending off an entire big-studio crowdpleaser career is perhaps more than filmmakers Aaron and Adam Nee can comfortably handle. They do well teasing out some actual running gags, like the way Alan's frequent malapropisms particularly vex the writerly Loretta, as well as conceptual ones, like the assortment of maverick-bro shorthand traits assigned to a genuine mercenary-rescuer figure played by a major star. Following the ultra-generic caper Uncharted, it's a relief to watch an adventure movie that seems genuinely more interested in romantic chemistry and laughs than computer-generated set pieces.

As good as Bullock and Tatum are here, much of The Lost City's banter drowns itself out. It's a jarring reminder that as rom-com-adjacent and human-scale as Bullock's roles have been, she's rarely had the opportunity to bite into truly funny dialogue. Not trusting itself to construct crisp, concise back-and-forth between its leads, The Lost City — like a lot of Bullock movies before it — opts for a volume approach, encouraging its stars to just keep riffing, even if it means tripping over faux-comedic filler phrases like "that's not a thing" and "who does that?" So many long, rambling lines overlap with each other that it often sounds like all five of the credited screenwriters are speaking at once.

In a weird way, this kitchen-sink approach to comedy is appropriate to Bullock's catch-all career, where her variety of comedy, drama, romance, and thriller pictures (and lack of franchises: Speed 2 is one of only two traditional sequels she's done) complement each other, like part of one big journey of self-discovery. She can generate chemistry with certain co-stars, but she seems like a rom-com queen more because of how much audiences enjoy tagging along with her.

The Lost City threatens to engage in Sandy overload: It has the romantic action of Speed, the comedic action of The Heat, the overcoming-grief motivation of Gravity, and the loneliness of While You Were Sleeping, among others. It's not a spectacular send-off, and Bullock will doubtless be back in the spotlight at some point. (She's already filmed a role in Bullet Train, out this summer.) But whether it means to or not, The Lost City sends her lovelorn movie-star persona off into the sunset.

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