The movie starts with a terminally cheerful, latex-cherry-boot-wearing Mary Horowitz (Sandra Bullock) walking through Sacramento on her way to work to drop off her weekly crossword for the local city newspaper. She’s a cruciverbalist (a creator of crossword puzzles) and she's very proud of her work, peeking over people's shoulders as they try to figure out her clues. It becomes obvious very quickly, however, that all Mary is not like other people, and all she has is her work. All around her, her coworkers talk about going out and having fun, and another coworker announces his engagement. None of this fazes Mary, who confronts her boss with her fantastic idea to include a DAILY crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Her boss, concerned that Mary is all work and no play, encourages her to start enjoying life. "Try enjoying being normal," he says. She writes this down on her folder. "Be more normal." She then tells her boss that she has a blind date that night, set up by her parents, that she'd planned on canceling. Now she isn't so sure she should cancel it.
She then goes to a school career day, where her carefully dramatized speech about the importance of cruciverbalist is ambushed by the children, who ask her how she pays her rent on one crossword puzzle a week. She admits that she lives temporarily with her parents while her apartment is being fumigated (but we get the impression that apartment was fumigated months, maybe even years ago). The children laugh. They shout at her saying, "You don't have a husband, do you? Not even a boyfriend!" Mary, clearly hurt, keeps on her smile but feels demoralized. She goes home, where her parents ask her how her day went. She lies, and says she needs to get ready for her date. They are thrilled to hear that she's not canceling it.
In her room, she talks to her guinea pig Carol, debating about what to wear, should she really go, etc. When her date, Steve arrives, Mary is shocked to find out that he's extremely handsome and charming. She races back into her room and changes into something racy enough for a Victoria's Secret commercial, complete with red boots, and acts awkwardly "sexy" toward Steve. They leave and go out to his car, when it starts to rain. The second Steve is in the car; Mary mauls him like a mountain lion, throwing him in the backseat for a quick roll in the hay. Steve is excited at first, but quickly finds Mary's incessant talking about random facts and their destiny to be together very scary. He is saved by a phone call from work, which takes him out of Mary's clutches. He says he has to go, and that life on the road is tough. He wishes she could join him, but since she has a job, an important job, it just won't work out right now. He gives her an umbrella as a gift and escorts her out of his car before taking off into the night.
Mary misreads his intentions and falls head over heels in love, staying up all night to create a new crossword for the week. An "All About Steve," crossword, with clues like - How Steve smells, How Steve Tastes (Mint explosion!), Steve's favorite treats, etc. The whole town is perplexed by the oddball crossword, and Mary loses her job for being unprofessional.
Sitting in the bathtub wallowing in her misery, Mary realizes that she just needed to line up the clues to figure out her next step. She now has no job that would keep her from following Steve on the road. So she starts watching the news and figures out how to track him down. Her first attempt fails, (her annoying fact spewing on a bus gets her kicked off in the middle of nowhere), but in the process she charms a truck driver who finds her annoying yet oddly sweet and genuine.
Meanwhile Steve has given no more thought to Mary, and he's an ambitious cameraman for a network called CCN working with up-and-coming reporter Hartmann Hughes (Thomas Haden Church looking like a "wrinkled tan peach") and Angus, a fellow journalist and "chaperone." Between Hartmann and Steve there is much competition and camaraderie. Clearly these two have had a history together. Hartmann is a vain prima donna who wants an Escalade like his counterpart at a rival TV station, and he'll stop at nothing to win a position as an anchor at CCN. But he's an embarrassment to the station, with his dramatic crocodile tears, over-the-top speeches on camera and lewd behavior off camera.
While covering a breaking news story about a 3-legged baby caught in a custody battle, Mary arrives via taxi and finds Steve, who's shocked and a bit frightened that Mary has found him. He'd heard about the crossword "All About Steve," and was naturally creeped out. Steve tells her he has to go to work, and Mary finds herself with some of the odd protesters making signs and lighting candles. Even though they are all a little "off" by normal standards, they're kind and welcoming to Mary, who fits in. She makes friends quickly.
Hartmann catches wind that Steve's stalker is in the crowd of protesters, so he finds Mary and encourages her to "be the rock" in her relationship with Steve. He tells her how afraid of intimacy Steve is, and how she will need to stick with him so he can be in a fulfilling relationship with her. She believes him, and goes into the media tent to find Steve.
Steve freaks out when he sees her - she's very calm now, unlike her usual upbeat, frenetic self. Mary tells Steve that she knows about his fears and that she's going to stick by him. No matter how many times Steve tells her that he doesn't want her there, Mary doesn’t believe him. When the story wraps and Steve, Hartmann and Angus are leaving the scene, Mary chases after the van in hopes of finding out where Steve is going next. Hartmann tips her off, and Mary, a little confused, decides that she needs to continue on her journey of Steve. Two of the protesters that she befriended tell her that they understand her journey, and they're willing to go with her...to Galveston...where a hurricane is hitting.
On their way to Galveston, Mary bonds with her friends. Before they can find Steve, however, a tornado stops them in their tracks and the three friends have to take cover in a sewer drain. Their car is ripped away, leaving them alive but completely alone and deserted. After the damage is done, the three walk around and find their friend's car, demolished. Hartmann, Steve and Angus see them in the field, and Steve, now in full crazy-scared mode, is dressed in a Geraldo-esque wig and porn-star mustache. Hartmann writes a message on the back of a bucket of fried chicken with their next destination, and even more disappointed, Mary decides that she's on a road that she can't turn back on. She has to see where this road to Steve ends. Her friends stick by her and the three of them follow Steve.
The movie culminates at the site of an abandoned mine shaft, where a bunch of deaf children have fallen after the ground caves in on them. News crews from all across the country come in to cover the story, and Hartmann sees this as his chance to beat his competitor and win a shot as an anchor as CCN. One by one the children are pulled out of the mineshaft, and as the last child is pulled out, the ground gives way and the crane tips over. The fire department tells everyone that the ground isn't safe and they all need to move back. Just then Mary arrives and, seeing Steve, races over to see him, falling right into the mineshaft.
Suddenly Mary is a media star, and footage of her falling into the shaft is played over and over. The reporters dig up every detail of her life, bombard her parents home, and CCN puts Steve on the spot to talk about his grief over "his girlfriend." Steve, feeling guilty for how he's treated Mary, goes on the air and says that Mary is perfect the way she is, though most people don't get her. She's kind and smart and she doesn't deserve any of this. Meanwhile a crowd of Mary's friends gathers around the site to hold a vigil. One of her friend confronts Hartmann, telling him that he did all of this to Mary, and what she did was bring together a group of wonderful people who actually care about her.
While Mary is fishing her way out of the murky waters at the bottom of the mineshaft, she discovered one little deaf girl that the fire department forgot. Mary, who knows a little sign language, is able to communicate with the girl. As the hours go by, Mary tries everything she can in that big brain of hers to find a way out of the mine. It's getting dark out and crews on the ground are waiting for another crane that can get them out in time. Carbon monoxide is threatening to poison Mary and the girl, and she knows her options are waning. So she finally has a breakdown. She doesn’t have all the answers. She knows that Steve didn't really want her there. She feels foolish for trying to fit in when she knows she can't. And why does she wear the red boots? "Because they make my toes feel like ten friends on a camping trip!" She cries. The deaf girl just watches her rant, and signs, "I can't understand you, but you talk too much." Mary laughs.
She takes off her boots and gives them to the girl to keep her warm, and the girl signs, "maybe they can find a way to save us," and the motion of the sign language in her statement gives Mary an idea. She rigs up the cable from the crane into a pulley and she weighs down a cable car nearby with rocks based on how much the two of them weigh. Seems Mary is also a physics nut. She wraps them both into the cable with a harness, and gets ready to send the two of them to the surface. Until... a crazy, guilt-ridden Hartmann Hughes grabs a fire hose (attached to nothing) and dives into the mine shaft like an idiot, yelling "I'll save you Mary!"
He falls into the water, and he finds Mary and the girl about to ascend to the surface. He gets a chance to apologize to her, and she asks, "How much do you weigh?" They add more rocks to the cable car then all get into the harness. Mary lets Hartman take the credit for their valiant rescue, and with a kick to the cable car the three rise to the surface. Everyone cheers - her friends, her parents, the truck driver she met earlier, her ex-co-workers at the paper. "Guess I'll have to give her a job, now," her boss jokes.
Mary, soot covered, exhausted but happy, confronts Steve, who apologizes for his behavior. She accepts. He says, "Mary? Don't change for anybody." She replies. "I'm Jewish Catholic. I'm kind of set in stone."
Then she races into the arms of her friends and is lifted on to their arms. Her last line is, "Why should you have to change to be normal? All you have to do is find someone who's as normal as you are."
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