The Reeler


April 12, 2007

Lonely Hearts

True crime remake a meaningless mash of clichés

As with even the most ordinary word, repeating a cliché often enough ensures that it will lose all meaning. Lonely Hearts is ostensibly a narrative film, yet in this key sense it's meaningless. Not just a series of serial killer/cop drama clichés in search of a structure, Lonely Hearts is the fourth version of the true "Honeymoon Killers" saga of the late '40s/early '50s (1970’s The Honeymoon Killers is even canonized with a Criterion Collection release, and Arturo Ripstein’s 1997 entry,Deep Crimson, was also well-received). The need for this film is unapparent to all but its creator; Todd Robinson isn't just a writer/director ostensibly on the rise, he's the grandson of the real-life protagonist. The result, sadly, is cathartic for no one else.

In one corner are policeman Elmer C. Robinson (John Travolta) and his partner Charles Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini), in the other are serial killers Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) and Martha Beck (Salma Hayek). Fernandez and Beck lure in their victims through a lonely hearts pen pal scheme and then take their money; Beck’s escalating psychosis leads her to kill a number of the women for fear that Fernandez will really fall in love with them. Robinson and Hildebrandt make it their mission to eradicate the duo. Both the characters and actors seem unwilling to surprise, with the former doing nothing surprising and the latter sticking to their respective familiar territories.

As Elmer, who is still in shock over the suicide of his wife a few years earlier, Travolta registers the emotional range of a lobotomy victim, and makes you long for the scenery chewing of Battlefield Earth. Gandolfini, meanwhile, seems hell-bent on demonstrating that if you turn down the menace of Tony Soprano to 30%, there's nothing left. Leto offers another variation on his charming fuck-up act, and Salma Hayek is saddled with the worst stock character, that of the psychotic, sexually castrating bitch. Laura Dern, as Travolta’s colleague/would-be partner, struggles valiantly to add to her résumé of under-appreciated performances, but the script never allows her to be more than a reflection of Travolta’s effect on others.

Over on the craft side, things are similarly hopeless. Robinson has a decent eye for sleek if bland widescreen framing, but his picture of family life -- as evinced by Travolta’s troubled relationship with his son (Dan Byrd) -- never transcends the stereotypical. Elmer C. Robinson either uses his workaholic tendencies to avoid getting close to others, or is one of those emotionally repressed ‘50s fathers; it’s hard to know or care which archetype is at play here. Hayek and Leto are a generic, “chilling” serial killer couple, and occasional bursts of graphic gore (in the name of “chilling” verisimilitude, presumably) are neither fun nor particularly surprising. The whole thing is sullenly unimaginative, down to its arrest-as-redemption finale. The would-be dark story aside is reduced to a sub-plot in service of healing the nuclear family.

Lonely Hearts does show one sign of life: As Elmer’s fellow officer Detective Reilly, Scott Caan offers another airtight variation on the annoying-but-funny frat-boy persona he has honed in movies like the Ocean's franchise and his own underrated directorial debut, Dallas 362. The first thing he does here is crack a racist joke about Jackie Robinson, and proceeds to generally annoy everyone in every scene he's in for the rest of the movie. He's the only character who can't be reduced to a plot mechanism, and instead revels in his own inessentiality. A movie so grimly determined to stick to its rote narrative could have used more characters like him.

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