Friday, October 1, 2010

Lonely Hearts (USA, 2006)

Some film are beautifully made and well acted but nonetheless cause the viewer to think, "Why did I bother?" Lonely Hearts, the feature-film debut of documentary filmmaker and scriptwriter Todd Robinson, is such a film. The film has seven recognizable actors (the four with possible drawing power being on the poster) doing their thespian best, decked out in perfect period costumes and circulating within perfect period sets, bathed in perfect lighting and framed wonderfully in well-shot scenes that are excellently edited, but nonetheless the whole project leaves the viewer about as satisfied as a lonesome nympho with a battery-operated dildo without batteries. How could the film go so wrong?
The plot itself is an interesting one: it tells the tale of a murderous couple feeding off of lonely spinsters, based on the true-life exploits of the infamous "Lonely Hearts Killers" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who are believed to have killed some twenty lonesome ladies before going to the chair on March 8th, 1951. The infamous pair have inspired at least two other film versions of their exploits, both of which are much better than Lonely Hearts—despite probably having a smaller budget combined and absolutely no star power.
Both the Mexican version from 1996, Arturo Ripstein's Profundo carmesí, and The Honeymoon Killers (1969 / trailer), the low-budget masterpiece directed by the opera composer Leonard Kastle (his only film to date), stick closer to the true story and the killers themselves, and are much better films for doing so. Todd Robinson not only makes a variety of unneeded dramaturgical changes in the actions of the killers (as in: invents events that never happened), but he moves the focus of the film away from the Fernandez and Beck and onto the detectives on the case, Det. Charles Hilderbrandt (James Gandolfini of Perdita Durango [1997 / trailer]) and, in particular, Det. Elmer Robinson (John Travolta of Moment by Moment [1978 / abridged version of the film]).
That Robinson did so is perhaps understandable since the real Det. Robinson was Todd Robinson’s grandfather, but the problem is that the whole story involving Det. Robinson never seems to be much more than a well-acted, well-shot period soap opera, and is much better suited for some late night television mini-series than a feature film. That the filmmakers decided to change Martha Beck from a fat and unattractive psychotic woman (see the photo of the real Martha Beck and Fernandez at the left) to a psychotic hot tamale is typically Hollywood, but at least Salma Hayek (as the hot tamale) does manage to sometimes come across as “damaged goods” (as she is described at one point in the voiceover by Det. Hilderbrandt)—and really, she and her cleavage are also some of the most captivating aspects of the film. Much to everyone’s regret, she never has a nude scene, but in all truth, though such a scene is sorely missed it is doubtful that it would've made the film any better. On the other hand, what would’ve possible made the film better would’ve been to retain the bizarre aspect of the attraction between a diminutive Latin lothario and an immense glandular disorder by casting someone like, say, Rosie O'Donnell or Kirstie Alley.
Speaking of bizarre, was the true story not already both bizarre, tragic and sordid enough not to need the (fabricated) sudden conversion of Raymond Fernandez (well-played by a bald Jared Leto of Urban Legend [1998 / trailer] and Lord of War [2005 / trailer]) into a gun-happy cop killer and murderer of defenseless old men? The only thing bizarre about those two additions to the story is that they were even added, as unnecessary as they are. And how did the cop killing suddenly lead the two detectives to Minnesota? It's another unnecessary plot device that does little but incite a big "Huh?" from the viewer—rather unlike the relatively mundane turn of events that happened in real life: the two killers simply hung around too long after murdering lonely Delphine Downing and her child and were caught when a suspicious neighbor called the cops.
Lonely Hearts is a beautiful but dissatisfying film, a good example of how a few wrong decisions can cause even the best ingredients to make crap. Want a good film about the same story? No, let me correct myself: Want an excellent film about the same story? Go rent a copy of Leonard Kastle’s low budget and extremely disturbing take on the tale, The Honeymoon Killers. For whatever flaws Kastle’s film might have (and it has some), it is nonetheless an artistic success in every sense of the word—totally unlike Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts.

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