Likeable characters are the lifeblood of any light piece of entertainment, especially your standard romantic comedy.
After all, if we (the audience) can’t relate to the story’s leads why should we care about whether or not they get together at the end.
Despite featuring a lot of charming actors, Robert Greenwald’s Sweet Hearts Dance (1988) can’t seem to grasp that simple concept, since its cast is full of narcissists, pushovers, jealous lovers, and all-around jerks.
The film’s plot revolves around Wiley (Don Johnson) and Sam (Jeff Daniels); two lifelong friends who have chosen radically different paths in their adult lives.
Sam is the local high school principal and is just starting a relationship with the town’s newest arrival Adie (Elizabeth Perkins).
Meanwhile, Wiley and his wife Sandra (Susan Sarandon) have been married for 15 years and produced three children in that time.
Unfortunately, Wiley decides to leave his wife and kids after suffering a midlife crisis and Sam is forced to play mediator between the two affected parties.
Now, in order to make this premise work, the director and screenwriter really have to sell you on Johnson throwing away his family life, or else the rest of the movie pretty much implodes.
And while abandoning your responsibilities as a husband and father is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of audiences, this kind of selfish character arc can work if the filmmakers flesh out the serious ramifications of his decision.
Unfortunately, screenwriter Ernest Thompson doesn’t go there, and depicts this (theoretically) heart wrenching separation as a minor speed bump in the relationship that can be easily repaired.
In fact, it feels like Johnson never seriously tries to earn the forgiveness of his wife and children, since he spends most of the movie moping about the life he could have lead if he didn’t get married at such a young age.
To make matters worse, Sarandon’s anger at her estranged husband is disappointingly muted.
Even after he embarrasses her in public several times, which includes bedding a random bartender on New Year’s Eve, Sarandon’s character doesn’t have enough of a backbone to simply kick this loser in the dick and move on with her life.
Instead, she’s the one who makes the first move and attempts to reconcile the relationship, even though Johnson has done nothing to earn that level of respect.
These topsy-turvy character dynamics are especially hard to take since we live in a world where infinitely better divorce-dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) or Marriage Story (2019) exist, which do a much better job of making you sympathize with both sides of such a messy, painful process.
In Sweet Hearts Dance, the characters never come anywhere close to having a deep conversation that gets to the core of their marital strife. As a result, they come across as immature high school students going through a minor tiff, rather than two full-grown adults who are about to change their lives forever.
The supporting cast don’t come across much better.
While Perkins is going for sarcastic, Aubrey Plaza-level wit, she just comes across as being a mean-spirited cynic since her character isn’t given enough room to develop.
And even though Daniels is supposed to act as the voice of reason in his friend’s marital woes, he makes a bunch of extremely questionable decisions in his own love life.
Not only does he come across as a jealous psycho by giving Perkins shit after she sunbathes nude on vacation, but he impulsively asks his girlfriend to marry him even though they’ve only been going out for a couple months.
While this behavior could have been salvaged by injecting Daniels with some refreshing self-awareness, his romance with Perkins kind of putters out and their problems are never resolved in any meaningful way.
In fact, this film is full of half-baked ideas that could have been interesting if they were tweaked a little bit.
The most glaring example of this is how the film is structured, since early sections of the story are framed using major American holidays (Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.).
But for some reason, the filmmakers abandon this festive sequencing after New Year’s Eve and decide to organize each subsequent story beat under title cards that read “Open House,” “Going Away,” and “Coming Home.”
I understand that the first few months of the year are short on noteworthy celebrations, but why in the blue hell did they skip over Valentine’s Day? You know, that one time of the year where sweet hearts usually attend a dance!?
It’s a shame that the script is as messy as it is, since all these actors have great chemistry.
Daniels and Johnson really sell you on the idea that they’ve been friends since grade school, with some of the best scenes in the movie involving them tobogganing, sailing, and threatening to beat up some local teenagers.
And even though their breakup and reconcilement isn’t well defined, Sarandon and Johnson at least feel like a married couple who are struggling to recapture the magic of their early relationship.
However, the film’s script can’t attain that same level of consistency, and the tone constantly flip-flops between light comedy and serious domestic drama without fully committing to either.
Because of this, I can’t get a beat on who this movie is meant for. It’s not sappy or wholesome enough for the Hallmark Channel and not edgy enough for the Sundance crowd.
Sweets Hearts Dance also doesn’t work as a date movie, since all this underdeveloped marital dysfunction definitely won’t put you and your companion in the mood.
My recommendation would be to watch this movie solo on a Sunday afternoon. That way you can turn down the volume and enjoy the film’s nice Vermont scenery while you vacuum and complete other weekend chores.
Corner Store Companion:
The Perfect Man milk chocolate bar (because it’s the closest you’ll get to finding a sweet romantic lead while watching this movie)
-Release date: Sept. 23, 1988
-Budget: $ 9 million
-Box Office Gross: $ 3,790,493
–Charmed actress Holly Marie Combs makes her feature film debut here as Johnson’s daughter “Debs.”
– Sweet Hearts Dance director Robert Greenwald received a Razzie in 1980 for directing famous b-movie Xanadu. However, he was also nominated for an Emmy in 1995 for helming the TV miniseries A Woman of Independent Means.
-Greenwald eventually pivoted into documentary filmmaking and political activism later in his career, founding the media company Brave New Films in 2004. For the next 16 years, Greenwald dedicated his career to tackling hot button issues through documentaries like Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004), Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005) and Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013).
-Surprise cameo: Vermont senator, and current U.S. presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders makes an uncredited appearance handing out Halloween candy at the very beginning of the film. Sweet Hearts Dance was filmed near the city of Burlington, where Sanders served as mayor between 1981 and 1989. Sanders’ only other feature film roll is playing a rabbi in the 1999 low-budget comedy My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception.