Sunday, April 15, 2007

Lonely Hearts and Riches

I saw "Lonely Hearts" without really knowing much about it. It has one of those generic titles that could apply to a number of different films in different genres, although in this case, the title is precise and apt. It's the story of a murderous couple who prey on vulnerable women they meet in 'lonely hearts" ads in the late 1940s.

When I glanced at a summary online before heading out to the theater, I noticed Salma Hayek and Laura Dern and Jared Leto, and thought, that's an interesting cast, might be something different. Not until I was in my seat watching the opening scenes did my heart sink to see John Travolta and James Gandolfini. Was this going to be a gruff blustery cop buddy film? Or something determinedly gritty? Help.

The surprise is that I enjoyed the scenes with Travolta and Gandolfini the most. Yes, they play a pair of detectives who are mismatched in their passion to solve the case. Travolta's character is driven by the recent suicide of his wife in a similar manner as the first victim they find; solving the murder is a thinly veiled attempt to figure out why his wife killed herslef, but the film isn't shy about making that connection, and does it fairly subtly and well. Gandolfini, despite an annoying voiceover narration, serves as his far less interesting foil, but at least he's tolerable.

Meanwhile, we have a balding Jared Leto and a scenery-chewing Salma Hayek as the murderous couple. There's a lot of seduction (both exciting and squirm-inducing) and more than enough violence. Leto tries valiantly to give his character some motivation, but Hayek is pure evil stepmother or Cruella deVille, cardboard villianess to the core. Gandolfini's voiceover helpfully gives us a sentence or two of her troubled childhood, as if this will make up for the actress's inability to give a plausible performance. But hey, her lipstick looks good, and she has the perfect body to pull off the post-war sexy dresses and high heels.

* * *

I can't help but compare this to "The Riches," the new series on FX, which helpfully ran a marathon on Friday night so I could catch up. It stars the very interesting Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as parents of a gypsy/travelers family who live off cons and schemes. The pilot, which has a heaviness that the later episodes fortunately shrug off, explains how they take over the lives (house, identities, possessions) of a couple in whose highway death they are tangentially complicit. Once that's out of the way, and we're clear that Dad is somewhat of a dreamer and Mom a determined drug addict, we're presented with episodes that detail the lengths they will go to maintain their sudden new "American Dream" lives. Interestingly, most of the family (save Dad, who's a "half-breed") isn't interested in living the dream, even as they learn to enjoy the backyard pool and the credit cards. They disdainfully refer to the "buffers" whose world they've infiltrated, and the interesting part of the show is watching how they adapt. Mom learns that the prescription pills her wealthy neighbor pops are as effective as her ill-gotten street drugs. Dad realizes his con man experience makes him passable as a smooth-talking corporate defense lawyer.

I've seen 2 1/2 episodes, with a couple more waiting to watch, but I'm intrigued enough to keep going. That's a good sign.


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