Celluloid as Sedative
Insomniacs, rejoice! During the first several decades of Sydney Pollack's bloated, interminable Random Hearts, your eyelids will droop, your pulse and respiration will slow, and you'll get that $8 nap you've been craving. Once the credits roll and the lights come up, you'll awaken refreshed, undisturbed by vague dreams about an erstwhile mesmerizing actor mumbling awkward come-ons such as "I was thinking about your mouth."
Really, what's going on here? Does anyone remember when Harrison Ford used to act for a living? Though sadly dismissed by the masses, the performance the man gave in Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast was brilliant and dynamic. He also rose to the occasion as a cop among the Amish in Weir's Witness and as a doctor on the lam in Andrew Davis' The Fugitive. Again as a cop, in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, he set an icy standard of cool that has yet to be topped. Even in the two-dimensional realm of Indiana Solo, he always put out, pumping up the epic scale. So what's with all the complacent posturing these past few years? Has the actor's lucrative persona consumed his interest in daring material, leaving him with only two cards -- Charming Everyman and Earnest Hero -- in his hand?
It seems so, because these two angles are all Ford brings forth here. Once again he plays a cop, this time a D.C. Internal Affairs sergeant named William "Dutch" Van Den Broeck. Dutch adores his wife, Saks fashion consultant Peyton (Susanna Thompson), and the movie opens with her delaying a meeting in order to share a bit of morning glory with him. We also encounter New Hampshire congresswoman Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her less amorous husband, Cullen (Peter Coyote). Soon, while Dutch and his partner, Alcee, (Charles S. Dutton) are rooting through a sticky urban case involving loose-cannon detective George Beaufort (Dennis Haysbert), and Kay is struggling with her insolent campaign advisor, Carl Broman (director Pollack), a storm forces a 737 down into Chesapeake Bay. Among the 103 dead: Peyton and Cullen, posing as husband and wife, en route to a weekend in Miami Beach.
If you're still awake by this part, you'll see that Dutch and Kay each has very different ways of grieving. "I get paid to know who's lying," Dutch gruffly laments of being made a cuckolded widower. "I didn't notice a thing." Kay, however, has no room in her life for scandal or mourning; she's raising a 15-year-old daughter as well as riding a reelection campaign. When Dutch first drops in to probe her about their spouses' affair, she bluntly expels him. The rest of the movie is dedicated to her confronting her feelings and his learning to overcome his abandonment and paranoia.
There's great potential for emotional complexity in this premise, but screenwriter Kurt Luedtke and director Pollack are unable to kindle much in the way of passion. From Ronald Reagan National Airport to Dutch's woodsy cabin to Miami Beach, the movie suffers from flat, uninspired framing. The dialogue and situations are also dispiritedly dry. ("You'll never find what you're looking for, Dutch," explains Kay. "You want to know why, and there is no 'why.'") Granted, this is a love story about two people whose spouses cheated on them, then died, but by toeing the line between heartbreak and budding hope, Random Hearts achieves less subtlety than mediocrity. It's a TV movie writ large and expensive.
Other technical aspects are hit and miss. Dutch's subplot reads like a segment out of any generic cop show, but Kay's campaign trail is loaded with drama and significance. (She even looks a bit like Hillary.) The volatile combination of lust and rage is intriguing, but the scene of its first eruption is ludicrous. Where pacing is concerned, Random Hearts makes Solaris look like Speed, and somebody needs to tell veteran composer Dave Grusin that his muted trumpet does not connote sorrow. Thank goodness, after all this, the movie's denouement is graceful and mature.
The main problem is that Ford doesn't really seem to ache. His familiar face and voice command attention, but he often looks bewildered by what's coming out of his mouth. (No offense to lesbians, but these days he's looking less like "the Sexiest Man Alive" than an aging butch dyke. Wattled, gray, and earring-studded doesn't suit him.) Taking a sensitive role like this is commendable, but wasn't William Hurt available?
On the other hand, Scott Thomas is a face full of veiled vulnerability as Kay. Having proven herself a world-class actress in the company of everyone from Prince (Under the Cherry Moon) to Polanski (Bitter Moon), her performance is enhanced by her gift for restraint. As she explains in the production notes, "Kay does something that is very familiar to me as an English woman. It's just to go into this deep state of denial, to be able to get on with your life and pretend that nothing awful has happened." Bolstered by this understanding, her work as Kay is the movie's finest element.
Dutton and numerous others punch the clock in perfunctory supporting roles, while Pollack himself is smug and annoying. Bonnie Hunt brings out a rare spark as friend Wendy Judd, who acutely recounts her own betrayal (and denial). In fact, the only theme here that resonates clearly is this question: How much denial is necessary to maintain one's sanity? When this issue is considered, it prompts the leads' best work in the movie, but there is also ample opportunity to explore the pros and cons of monogamy within a wretchedly puritanical culture. The narrative dodges this issue altogether, to its detriment, since the story is predicated on infidelity. What we're left with is a rather vague meditation upon love and loss, not the stuff of profound emotional inquiry. But, hey, you just might like it if you're old and boring.
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