Heartbreakers (2001)

D: David Mirkin
S: Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt

Expertly played black comic farce which despite narrative lulls and a need of a quicker pace delivers a good quota of hearty laughs and some wicked performances from a game cast. Sigourney Weaver (Galaxy Quest) is a con artist who specialises in marrying rich men only to have them seduced by her partner-in-crime and daughter Jennifer Love Hewitt (I Know What You Did Last Summer), leading to the inevitable divorce settlement. Having taken latest victim Ray Liotta (Blow) to the cleaners, the pair set their sights higher. As Hewitt wants to break out on her own, she agrees to one last score, namely elderly, ailing tobacco tycoon Gene Hackman (Absolute Power), worth three billion dollars. The situation is complicated by the IRS who, in the form of the divine Anne Bancroft (The Graduate) are looking for back taxes from the pair and also by Liotta, who won't take divorce as a no and is in pursuit. Further troubles arise when Hewitt tries a side con working bar owner Jason Lee (Chasing Amy) and begins to fall in love for real.

The script by Robert Dunn, Paul Guay, and Stephen Mazur is witty and pretty well plotted. Yes this is territory that has been covered many times before, even as recently as the oft-mentioned Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (and there are faint, faint echoes of The Lady Eve in there too), but the writers have covered all the bases and Mirkin has found an ideal cast to play it out.

Hackman is nothing short of brilliant as the disgusting old man at the centre of the scam. Made over in ultra-pale skin with liver spots, wrinkles and a deliberately clownish red nose, he is a revelation of comic timing and characterisation. Though the character lends itself to the kind of gross-out grotesquerie recently popularised by the Farrelly Brothers, Hackman makes it work on a realistic level which is all the more effective because it doesn't detract from the rest of the story. On the contrary, it is integral to it. This is a turn worth of an Oscar nomination, although it is unlikely to receive one.

The rest of the cast are very good too. Weaver has a lot of fun with the kind of domineering character she played in Working Girl, only with a playful and sympathetic edge which adds to the characterisation. It is one of those roles for an older woman which makes no issue of itself and gives the actor great freedom to create. Bancroft is positively radiant in a similar type of role even though she only appears in a few scenes. Weaver also has a priceless scene in a Russian restaurant where she is forced to sing and turns to an unlikely saviour.

Hewitt has a limited range as an actor, but she has been well utilised here. Her girlishness is part of the plot. This allows her relative immaturity as a performer to inform the character and indeed deepen it. She is well matched with Lee, whose slightly cannier performance is both believable and sympathetic. Liotta is a lot of fun doing a comic variant on his usual goombah-mafioso routine, although he plays it a step down from the psychotic in Something Wild. There is such a good cast here that there is barely five minutes for talented comic Jeffrey Jones (Valmont) to get a look in as a hotel manager.

The film has an infectious sense of wickedness which is aided by a nice piece of theme music composed by Danny Elfman. It revels in sexual frustration and repressed or sublimated violence, although unusually in this case it is directed against men by women rather than vice versa. The film bristles with adult comic energy, and would have been quite superb had it not been a tad overextended. It sometimes feels as if it's taking too long with set ups and expositions, though there are some beautiful bits of quickfire banter and action too (the scene where the women bet on who can make a hapless man buy them a drink in a bar first). It needed a little bit more snappy editing to kick into high gear, but the film does move along smoothly enough all told and sustains interest throughout.

Heartbreakers is tons of fun for the viewer with a taste for humour at least a small bit above the level of flatulence and scatology so popular of late (There's Something About Mary, The Klumps). It's not Arsenic and Old Lace, but there are enough funny scenes with a dark edge and enough comic gusto from the cast here to make it an entertaining night out if you are suitably disposed towards it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.