17 December 2011 | secondtake
All the elements are there, including a great cast, but it doesn't click, doesn't tear into you
Lonely Hearts (2006)
A steady, interesting, colorful crime movie packed with both great old tropes from the film noir days and lots of familiar tricks. Amazingly, it's based on a true story from post-war America that goes way way way beyond the slimmed up version here.
The result is good, yes, but never mesmerizing, never a complete surprise, and never up to the potential of the either the source material or the talented cast. The very dependence of well known formulas for a kind of classic look and feel is what holds it back, because we know those formulas so well. The one aspect to the movie that is forcibly modern is the one that feels so forced it's almost pandering to a contemporary audience--lots of open swearing and sexual references in a manner not really "right" for a 1951 America.
Several lead actors are terrific. Salma Hayek, once she arrives, is an edgy bad girl, a woman with little moral code and a comfort level with blood and manipulation that makes an old school femme fatale look like schoolroom stuff. Her bad boy companion, Jared Leto, at first comes off as a Robert Downey Jr. wannabe, but he gradually hardens up his edges and by the end is pretty believable as a cocksure murderous idiot. The two cops, John Travolta and James Gandolfini, are a great pair, the one restrained and more in tune with the criminals, the other the sidekick with a good heart. (They might be modeled after, say, Glenn Ford and William Bendix, as two 1951 actors who could have pulled off the same roles with more conviction.)
The filming, the editing, the pace, the sets, the old cars, the interior and exterior location shoots, all of the nuts and bolts are in place here for a good movie. (Of these, the photography is the most routine, partly because of how it's directed, as in the last scene when the cops swarm the house--it could have been really exciting.) But overall it's the script--the script, not the story--that holds it all back. The parallel plots of the two criminals in their love affair crime spree and the cops on their trail is clear and fine, but unrevealing. The events happen, and we sort of know how it will end. And it does (not to give away anything!). If you want the true facts, go to the really long but readable account at trutv.com and type in the Lonely Hearts.
As a quick and hopefully helpful movie comparison, you can look at recent films like "Road to Perdition" or "Shutter Island" and see how a period piece film can brim with originality and better filming. A movie comes closer to this kind of familiar quality, based on older classic Hollywood models, is "Public Enemies" with Johnny Depp, though that one had some really beautiful moments in the photography. And what about that title? It is derived from the male killer's original tactic for getting money, which is given a comic treatment at the beginning of the movie--he writes to lonely women, gets them to fall in love with him, and steals their assets.
A final revealing note: the director is the grandson of the cop who led the original investigation into the crimes. That means he's really well placed emotionally, but as a director he's really incomplete. It's amazing, in fact, that he got the budget and talent he did with such a short track record. Opportunity squandered? Partially. Give it a chance.