Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The perhaps star-crossed couple whose components are both crazy about each other and drive each other crazy has been a staple of Hollywood romantic comedies for about as long as there have been Hollywood romantic comedies. From "The Awful Truth" to "The Shop Around the Corner" to "You've Got Mail" (which is itself an update of "Shop"), the spectacle of two attractive stars locked in a dance of attraction and repulsion that can only end one way has been good for both laughs and heart-tugging. With "The Bounty Hunter," reliable (some would say predictable) rom-com queen Jennifer Aniston trades steps with lovable hunk-of-the-moment Gerard Butler, with decidedly mixed results.
Like the largely (and justifiably) forgotten "I Love Trouble," a thoroughly misbegotten teaming of Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte, "The Bounty Hunter" attempts a bit of a genre mix, tying the romantic sparring with a suspense story line that's by turns rote and ridiculous. I'll make it quick: Aniston plays Nicole, an ace Daily News reporter whose devotion to a story gets her served with a bench warrant. Butler is Milo, a hard-drinking (duh) down-on-his-luck ex-cop now reduced to skip-tracing, who's assigned to track and return Nicole.
Guess what? They're exes, who supposedly can't stand each other but of course in fact can't live without each other. As they bicker their way from Brooklyn to Atlantic City to deepest Queens (locations that the movie seems to posit as all being within five minutes' driving distance from each other), they find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving a "suicide" that was actually a murder, and some serious police corruption. Simultaneously, some mooks are after Milo for gambling debts. And a geek (Jason Sudeikis of "Saturday Night Live") is doggedly pursuing (you could actually call it stalking) colleague Nicole, deluded that they've got a "thing going on."
All of this is set up, and stretched out, rather tiresomely in the film's first half. In increasingly dispiriting Hollywood fashion, this section (the parts of it that aren't ham-handed exposition, that is) plays less like a genuine story than as a series of "beats" engineered for the cheapest possible audience responses. A scene will build to its crescendo, and then some familiar piece of pop music will either coddle or (presumably) perk up the viewer, and sometimes it seems as if writer Sarah Thorp and director Andy Tennant can keep this up indefinitely. After another argument, Aniston throws something at Butler as his character departs to lose all his money at the gambling tables; cue Frank Sinatra's "This Town," of course. A teenage pedicab driver tells the cash-strapped Aniston that he'll let her ride for free if she shows him her boobs; cut to Aniston herself driving the pedicab, the scammed teen in not-so-hot pursuit; cue Run-D.M.C.'s "It's Tricky." And so on. Familiar, welcome character actors (Christine Baranski, Cathy Moriarty of "Raging Bull," the eerie Peter Greene, the preternatural milquetoast Matt Malloy) show up, are underused, and are dismissed. It's pretty dismal, not to mention vulgar.
But in the second half of the picture things slow down a little bit, as Nicole and Milo rediscover their tender feelings for each other. Aniston and Butler start showing a very engaging rapport, and fall into a relaxed but snappy rhythm. Where before they had been trying too hard (Butler laying on the slob mannerisms and Noo Yawk accent a bit thick, and Aniston verging on the outright brittle), now they both display a seemingly natural charm. (That these scenes could very well have been shot prior to the earlier scenes in the film is entirely possible, and there, I suppose, might be the magic of editing for you.) While still offering gags that aren't particularly inventive (although Milo's method of turning a houseful of strip-club patrons against his mookish creditors winds up being one of the film's cleverer touches), the movie shifts into a mode that's tolerably cute, and then genuinely sweet.
I honestly wouldn't have believed it had I not experienced it myself. Not that the shift inclined this reviewer to completely absolve the film of its former sins. But I imagine that "The Bounty Hunter" will catch a good number of moviegoers, particularly fans of its lead actors, in a more forgiving mood.
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.