Grade: B

Whatever relationship Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow might have off-screen–and it seems a rather coy, on-again, off-again thing–they work together remarkably well in “Bounce,” the sophomore feature from Don Roos. The writer-director’s first film, “The Opposite of Sex,” was widely praised, but it struck me as contrived and precious. This new effort is also contrived plotwise, but for the most part it’s presented in so naturalistic and restrained a style that one is willing to set aside the narrative lapses and respond favorably toward its straightforward warmth. And a big part of its success is the expert work done by the leads, who seem to have benefited from the helmer’s unforced approach.

The story is one which, in less skilled hands, could have turned into a maudlin tearjerker. Affleck plays Buddy Amaral, a cocky ad exec stuck in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport right before Christmas. Deciding at the last moment to lay over and spend an evening with a pretty passenger named Mimi (Natasha Henstridge), he gives his ticket to Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn), a writer whom he’s met at the bar and who’s anxious to get home to his family in L.A. rather than wait for a flight the next morning. When the plane crashes and Greg is killed, Buddy, feeling responsible, seeks out Greg’s widow Abby (Paltrow) and tries to help her out financially without revealing who is is. Of course a romance ensues, and the crux of the matter is whether Buddy will come clean and, if so, whether Abby can overlook his involvement in her husband’s death.

This is basically a soap opera story, but as played it’s remarkably assured and unexaggerated for most of the running-time. There are a few missteps along the way. An awards ceremony in which an increasingly unhinged Buddy loses it is too over-the-top for comfort. And a couple of elaborate twists near the close, involving a video tape and a trial, might have seemed a good idea of how to wrap things up but prove a poor contrast to the simplicity that makes the rest work so nicely. What saves the picture despite these problems are the stars. Affleck, who’s appeared stiff and uncomfortable in virtually all his lead turns since “Chasing Amy,” manages to be fairly relaxed and likable here; he even pulls off most of his more melodramatic mements. Paltrow, with hair darker than we’re accustomed to, is credibly vulnerable and uncertain as Abby; it’s not as showy a part as Affleck’s, but she complements him nicely. This is essentially a two-character drama, and the supporting figures are mostly functional types to whom even fine performers like Joe Morton (as Buddy’s partner) or David Paymer (as an attorney) can’t bring much life. But there are exceptions: Johnny Galecki proves an adept scene-stealer as Buddy’s knowing, catty assistant Seth, and Alex D. Linz is affecting as Abby’s troubled older son Scott.

People will be disappointed with “Bounce” if they go into it with the wrong expectations. It certainly isn’t a light romantic comedy of the kind that its title and star coupling might suggest. Nor is it a “big” picture technically: though it hinges on a tragic plane crash, you won’t find any effects sequences of the kind that marked 1993’s “Fearless” or even the recent teen thriller “Final Destination.” But if you’re willing to accept it on its own relatively modest terms, you should find it a commendably restrained, mostly intelligent drama providing a good showcase for its two personable young stars.