"All About Steve" is a plateful of stale crumbs swept up off the floor of the Hollywood rom-com factory. It's one of the worst movies on which Sandra Bullock has ever wasted her talent, or sought to waste our time. The picture was written by Kim Barker, whom one might have thought still to be under authorship arrest for penning the wretched Robin Williams anti-comedy "License to Wed." Barker's script has been given the direction it deserves by Phil Traill, who came to the task from TV and shorts. Bullock is one of the producers, which brings the fiasco full-circle.

The story is a laborious trifle. Bullock plays a cruciverbalist — a professional maker of crossword puzzles — named Mary Magdalene Horowitz (half Catholic, half Jewish, no payoff). Mary somehow makes a living creating one crossword puzzle per week for a small Sacramento newspaper (a publication that appears to be stuck in an age other than our own — its editor pastes up pages by hand, rather than composing them on a computer). Laboring in her chosen field, she has accumulated a vast store of arcane knowledge — obscure geographical factoids, stray phrases from foreign languages — and it comes spilling out of her in a constant, unstoppable flow, short-circuiting all attempts at social interaction. She's also strangely partial to cheesy miniskirts and knee-high boots of a screaming-red hue, which she wears at all times. The movie wants us to see Mary as a good-hearted eccentric, undervalued by the world. But her overbearing oddity is indistinguishable from mental defect.

This is another of those farfetched pictures in which a character who looks like Sandra Bullock can't get a man. Thus, Mary's mom and dad conspire to set her up on a blind date with another couple's son, Steve (Bradley Cooper — yes, it's also the sort of picture in which a guy who looks like Bradley Cooper can't get a girlfriend). Steve is a cameraman for a CNN-like news channel, and he's such a godsend that the love-starved Mary jumps him the minute she gets into his van on their first date. Steve is terrified by this eruption of psycho-neediness, and greatly relieved when a call comes in at that very moment dragging him away to cover a breaking news story with his producer Angus (Ken Jeong, wasted) and their pompous on-air reporter Hartman (Thomas Haden Church, way overqualified for this picture). Left hyperventilating in Steve's dust, Mary decides to make it her life's work to follow him hither and yon from that point on.

When she learns that Steve and his crew are covering a hostage situation in Tucson, Arizona, Mary hops on a bus to make the trip — which would take more than 13 hours from Sacramento — and is puzzled to find the story long over and Steve and company long gone when she finally arrives. She catches up with them in Oklahoma, covering the birth of a three-legged baby, and then doggedly pursues them down to the Gulf Coast of Texas, where there's a big hurricane blowing in. At this point we might note that keeping a production crew racing around the country in an expensive satellite van to cover things like hurricanes is not the way TV news operations operate.

But then the movie itself is a demonstration of the ways in which comedy doesn't operate. It sags in its long concluding section, which involves a group of deaf children who've been swallowed up in a Colorado mine-shaft collapse. This is where we're supposed to see a realization of Mary's many admirable qualities — her hyper-intelligence, her good heart — dawning on the main characters. But Mary hasn't evolved — she's not a good soul out of step with everyone else; she's an idiot. (Bullock's familiar appeal as an actress is straitjacketed throughout the picture by her character's glued-on, moronic smirk.) And so there's no preparation for the moment when Steve suddenly has a complete change of heart about Mary, because there's no plausible reason why he should have one.

The level of dialogue doesn't evolve either. Early on, when Church's character learns that Steve is being followed around by a woman in red boots, he says, "You bangin' a fireman?" This might have been amusing if firemen in fact wore red boots; but they don't. And when we finally do learn why Mary's been wearing those damn boots all through the picture, the answer turns out to be, "Because they make my toes feel like 10 friends on a camping trip." This, alas, is one of the movie's better lines.

Bullock can be very funny, and she's proved herself a subtle dramatic actress in past films like "Crash" and "28 Days." Can she really not find better scripts than this? Surely her fans deserve more.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Extract," also new in theaters this week.

MTV is taking you "Behind the Screen" on Friday, September 4, at 7 p.m. Tune in to check out exclusive clips from "Jennifer's Body" and "Ninja Assassin," your first look at "Clash of the Titans," a special appearance by Rain and a revealing exclusive interview with Megan Fox.

Check out everything we've got on "All About Steve."

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