Sunday, October 5, 2008


Sometimes when you get a chance to see the previews for a movie, you learn more about the story than the characters even know. Worse, you find yourself so far ahead of them that you grow impatient while waiting for them to catch up. They call this situation 'dramatic irony.' More than 30 minutes elapse in "Random Hearts" (* out of ****)before Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas realize that their respective spouses have not only died in a tragic plane crash, but that they also were cheating on them. Sadly, Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack of "Out of Africa" and his scenarists—Kurt Luedtke and Daryl Ponicsan--belabor the inevitable, trivialize adultery, and pad the action with two obligatory subplots that interfere with the main romance.

Although Warren Adler's novel served as the source material for "Random Hearts," this contemporary tale of ill-fated, middle-aged lovers draws inspiration from Sir David Lean's classic, 1945, rainy day soaper "Brief Encounter." Unlike Lean's legendary weepie, "Random Hearts" whirls aimlessly in circles but never seems to go anywhere, chiseling its audience out of any kind of emotional closure with its humdrum ending. Ford and Thomas both radiate celestial Hollywood star power, but their combined wattage cannot energize this comatose two-hour and 13-minute tearjerker.

Cast as a District of Columbia cop assigned to Internal Affairs, Ford is appropriately tight-lipped and believably gruff as Sergeant Dutch Van Den Broeck. "They call me Dutch—it's easier," he likes to tell people. Dutch busts bad cops, but racking up convictions to earn a long overdue promotion to lieutenant is not his style. He is as content as a police sergeant as he is secure in his marriage to his pretty wife Peyton (Susan Thompson of "Ghosts of Mississippi), a catalog designer for Saks Fifth Avenue. Sadly, Dutch lives in a fool's paradise, and the revelations from the plane crash shatter him. Ford is credible as the cuckolded cop, but his short, bristly hairstyle and a gold stud in his ear lobe contradict his blue-collar sensibilities.

Thomas plays Kay Chandler, a fastidious, New Hampshire, Republican congresswoman running for reelection against a billionaire opponent with few scruples. Married to well-heeled Washington attorney Cullen (Peter Coyote in a cameo role), Kay adores her 15-year old daughter Jessica (Kate Mara). Obviously, a scandal is the last thing that Kay needs during her re-election bid. When she discovers what her philandering husband has been doing, she keeps the truth from her daughter—and tries to deny it herself. "If they find out about your wife, it's gossip," Kay tells Dutch. "If they find out about my husband, it's in the newspapers.

The recurring question that haunts the characters in the Kurt "Out of Africa" Luedtke & Daryl "The Last Detail" Ponicsan screenplay is: How deeply can we trust our partners as well as ourselves? The drama in "Random Hearts: grows out of the troubled relationship that evolved when Dutch shows up at her apartment one day with a series of questions about Cullen. Dutch cannot believe that his wife cheated on him. Obsessively, he must turn over every rock in his search for the truth. Dutch figures Kay must be just as curious. They have a fling while he investigates the untimely death of their spouses. Kay fears Dutch because he cannot leave well enough alone, and the sense of betrayal that Dutch feels threatens his sanity.

The people that made "Random Hearts" had the right idea. Like most classic love stories, the characters share little in common except for their grief and betrayal, and they clash when they first collide. Diametrical opposites always attract in this genre, but the coupling of Kay and Dutch seems more like a screenwriter's conceit than a credible liaison. These characters never win our sympathy because they are too self-absorbed to see what is really happening around them. Further, Dutch and Kay aren't as interesting as their adulterous spouses. You know that a movie is in trouble, too, when forty-five minutes pass before its main characters get together. Luedtke and Ponicsan furnish Ford and Thomas with dialogue that verges on the ridiculous.

At one point, before they hop into the sack, Kay says to Dutch: "I'm not going to make small talk so there won't be any junk between us." Later, Kay observes about herself: "Nobody knows who I am anymore." While "Random Hearts" refuses to condone adultery, its sentiments about extramarital affairs seems capricious. During a conversation with one of his late wife's colleagues, Dutch listens as the woman explains how she accidentally caught her own erring husband in bed with another woman. Instead of exposing them, she felt discretion was the better part of fidelity and fled. "I kept my mouth shut and I never went home again without calling first," she states.

Some of the late Stanley Kubrick must have rubbed off on Pollack. Pollack, if you recall, acted in Kubrick's final film "Eyes Wide Shut." Kubrick was known for slowly paced epics. Similarly, Pollack takes great pains to draw out "Random Hearts" with long, dramatic pauses. The two subplots involving a crooked cop that Dutch is investigating and Kay's reelection campaign add nothing other than an obligatory shoot-out and Pollack himself as a spin doctor moderating Kay's election.

"Random Hearts" emerges as a gorgeous looking but glum melodrama that creeps along with agonizing solemnity before it arbitrarily fades out on a hollow note. Despite its gripping premise and its polished craftsmanship, "Random Hearts" is still a mopey love story in search of a pulse.

No comments: