Sandra Bullock may yet be one of our great living movie stars, capable of stealing just about any scene from any other actor. If only she could just find her place. Her role as the woman who winds up driving the bus in Speed was the breakout performance of a lifetime. In one scene, the bus approaches a lady crossing the street pushing a baby carriage. There's nothing anyone can do, so Sandra just screams and covers her eyes. The baby carriage goes flying, and -- not a baby -- but empty cans go flying and rattling all over, with the angry woman shaking her fist at the departing bus. Keanu Reeves tries to calm Sandra down by explaining that it was just cans. Her hysteria lasts a few more seconds, but it's so over-the-top utterly charming that Keanu can't help but smile at her. I've always suspected that that was a genuine smile from Keanu, not in character, and that director Jan de Bont just left it in.

After that she starred in While You Were Sleeping (1995), an above average Hollywood romantic comedy that made a nice profit. From there Bullock found herself locked in a struggle with her own career. She was perfect for romantic comedy, and whenever she made one, it was a hit, up to and including this past summer's The Proposal. The trouble is, it seems, that Bullock doesn't really want to make romantic comedies, but whenever she tries anything else -- like her great performance as Harper Lee in Infamous (2006) -- no one notices. She even became her own producer several years back in an effort to grab the steering wheel of her own career, but she's wrestling with a much older problem. It's called typecasting. Nobody ever wanted to see Charlie Chaplin make serious movies, nor did anyone ever want to see John Wayne play meek and mild-mannered.
Bullock has cleverly taken one more stab at this problem with All About Steve; it's packaged like a regular romantic comedy, but in it, Bullock gets to play around and have fun with a much different character. She's Mary Horowitz, a designer of crossword puzzles for a small Sacramento newspaper. She's very smart but socially graceless; she tends to babble incessantly, quoting trivia. She's confident and walks with a spring in her stride -- mostly thanks to her shiny, red, knee-high boots -- but has no idea how to read other people. Her parents set her up on a blind date with Steve (Bradley Cooper), a television cameraman for a cable news station. Their date begins well, with Mary jumping all over the willing Steve, but after a few minutes he gets a "psycho" vibe from her and gives her the brush off, telling her that he wishes she could come but he's got a job to do.

After doing an "all Steve" crossword puzzle, she loses her job and decides to tag along after her beloved. She finds him in the Midwest, covering a series of offbeat news stories. Steve's partner, reporter Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church), decides it will be funny to encourage her, so she sticks around. Eventually Mary picks up some oddball sidekicks, Elizabeth (Katy Mixon) and Howard (DJ Qualls), and winds up as part of a news story herself, also involving a school of hearing-impaired children and an abandoned mine shaft. It's suggested Howard may actually be the perfect match for Mary (he likes crossword puzzles and understands all her quotes and references) and Steve eventually warms up to her as well, but the movie avoids any romantic payoff. It's not clear whether this was Bullock's idea, or if the movie tested badly, but it just doesn't quite click.

The other problem is that screenwriter Kim Barker (License to Wed) and director Phil Traill, who makes his feature debut here, can't quite settle on a tone for the big "mine shaft" climax; it's played alternately for satire, black humor and pathos. The filmmakers don't want to make fun of deaf kids, but they do want to skewer the media. Eventually they have no idea how to juggle both, and each aspect feels cheapened at the expense of the other. At the same time, Bullock manages a strange juggling act of her own; in the film's first few minutes she turns us off completely with her character's abrasive personality (we would run if we met her in real life) but without betraying the character, she manages to charm us back by about the halfway point. It happens slowly, as she finds herself out of her element and listening to others for the first time.

Other actors come out well, too. I very much liked Ken Jeong (also in The Hangover with Cooper) as the oddly-named Angus, who works as Hartman and Steve's producer, and who is required to yell at them both from time to time. Poor molten-hot Bradley Cooper, hoping for his third big hit of 2009, has pretty much nothing to do; interestingly, he's the bland, passively-pursued character that usually goes to the female in the cast. But Thomas Haden Church proves he's an able-bodied comedian in the finest sense; he almost steals the entire picture, which is hard to do with Bullock onscreen. He continues an odd new trend of handsome, chiseled men (Brad Pitt, Jason Bateman) who are brilliantly funny as well as stoic and heroic. It's too bad that the movies -- and the audiences -- can't allow a similar duality for Bullock.