Lonely Hearts (2006) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and sexual content, nudity and language
Running Time: 108 min.
Cast: John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Jared Leto, Salma Hayek, Laura Dern, Scott Caan, Dan Byrd, Bailee Madison
Director: Todd Robinson
Screenplay: Todd Robinson
Review published December 15, 2006
Another movie based on the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers, Martha Beck (Hayek, Bandidas) and Ray Fernandez (Leto, Panic Room), who, in the 1940s, put personal ads in the local papers to lure rich women to fall for Ray, while they ended up killing them in the course of taking them for all they were worth. Together, they were responsible for up to twenty deaths.
If the story sounds familiar, that's because it has previously been done in the 1970 classic, The Honeymoon Killers (and also was the inspiration for the 1996 film, Deep Crimson), although this one also takes liberties with the story for the purposes of cinematic resonance. Beck, in real life, was known for being American-born, overweight and unattractive, which the slim Hispanic Salma Hayek most certainly does not qualify as (she seems more a sultry femme fatale from a movie of the same period) -- in fact, none of the actors resemble their real-life counterparts, primarily used for some name recognition and to afford the film a little clout. Leto as a suave Latin lover? Ha.
It's a bit odd to not strive for accuracy here, as writer-director Todd Robinson (who scripted White Squall) happens to be the very grandson of the man responsible for the arrest of the killers, Elmer C. Robinson (Travolta, Be Cool).
Robinson does a nice job visually, with a compact, well-edited piece that effectively captures the life and spirit of the 1940s. Good period costumes and sets add to the visual flair, and with Robinson's keen sense of style, as well as his punchy script, this is a film that would seem like it couldn't miss.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't quite gel into something that resonates well thematically, though Robinson does try to make the film about the redemption of his grandfather, who is driven by the haunting memory of his wife's suicide, wounds ripped open when he encounters another of the killers' victims that might have done the same. Robinson's film finds time to explore grandpa Elmer's home life, with a new girlfriend (Dern, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio) he has been keeping on the hush-hush tip so that his son, Eddie, won't become upset that someone might be replacing dear old mom. None of this is particularly interesting, as the film doesn't really lend well to a character study, as the killers get just as much screen time, and their story is far more compelling, mostly because it is so outlandish.
While the case is interesting, and the production values solid, the curious casting is a liability, as none of the film's main characters seem particularly right for their respective roles, and they also exhibit little chemistry together. While Beck and Fernandez were supposed to be madly in love, Hayek and Leto don't really feel like a particularly good fit, as they are too attractive to believe as being lonely, desperate, and insane enough to commit the heinous deeds they do. Travola intentionally goes for a closed-lipped, emotionally-withdrawn vibe, but this plays against his natural grain -- we know him too well to see him work so hard at doing so little, it shows.
Regardless of the spicy topic, as well as the prurient aspects of the crimes committed by Beck and Fernandez, Lonely Hearts is an emotionally stagnant piece that only draws you in to the story due to the identification with the helpless victims, and not because of the characters at large. We never really get a good feel as to what drives the two criminals to do what they do without much remorse, while the sex life of Elmer C. Robinson is pretty much a yawner from inception. The only thing left to praise the film for is the look and feel of 1940s life, but with such ugliness constantly on display, it may not meet well even for nostalgia buffs. Lonely Hearts is bloody, grisly, and sadistic, but with sketchy pacing and thin characters played by actors that don't belong, it flounders desperately to earn our attention throughout without success.
©2006 Vince Leo