Sweet Hearts Dance (1988) review-What a bunch of jerks

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.

Verdict:

5/10

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)

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Fun Facts:

-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.

Lonely Hearts (2006) review- A sleepy lead performance from Travolta drags down an otherwise solid film noir

As an industry, Hollywood is collectively guilty of many story-telling sins, like the tendency to over-romanticize important people, places, and things.

From botched biopics to anachronistic period pieces, the American film business has shown time and time again that it will go to great lengths to prune away the more unseemly elements of historical fact in favour of presenting a digestible narrative for general audiences.

Even violent criminals will sometimes get this treatment, since films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are still considered classics to this day despite being riddled with inaccuracies.

However, my general rule of thumb is that these white lies are forgivable as long the filmmaking behind them is solid, which is why Lonely Hearts (2006) works as a detective story despite the creative liberties its writer/director takes with the source material.

This movie’s plot follows the exploits of the “Lonely Hearts Killers,” a real-life pair of serial murderers who, from 1947 to 1949, lured as many as 20 women to their deaths through answering their personals ads.

While Jared Leto and Salma Hayek are saddled with portraying Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck (the killers), John Travolta also stars as a hardboiled detective tasked with tracking the couple down. Of course, like any good film noir, this case is never as simple as it seems and Travolta’s ability to bring the killers to justice is always being complicated by his own personal demons.

Lonely Hearts actually serves as a great example of why I’m not so anal about historical accuracy in film, since one its strongest elements is a blatant fabrication on behalf of the filmmakers.

Hayek’s performance as the Martha Beck is completely unnerving, terrifying, and full of surprises, especially when you realize that she is the architect behind a lot of the killings.

In fact, she’s so good that I didn’t even care that the real-life Beck was an overweight, homely white woman, who would have never been able to slip into the skimpy cocktail dresses that Hayek fills out so nicely in this film.

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While Leto is a little more willing to look like Raymond Fernandez (receding hairline and all), he’s also able to mix devilish charm with crippling insecurity, which makes him the perfect bait to attract a parade of desperate, lonely women.

And even though the two are playing remorseless serial killers, Leto and Hayek still manage to develop some compelling chemistry similar to other famous outlaw couples in popular culture, like Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen or (more fittingly) the Joker and Harley Quinn.

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Now, are the filmmakers guilty of making us sympathize with a pair of degenerates who caused a lot of pain and suffering in real life? Maybe. But the movie’s unflinching look at the brutality these two inflicted on their victims also doesn’t let us forget that their relationship is rooted in fear and jealousy rather than love and trust.

However, the same level of praise can’t be drummed up for Travolta’s performance, since he largely sleepwalks his way through his lead role as a heartbroken detective without any real edge or enthusiasm.

He doesn’t bring anything new to this well-worn character archetype, and can’t even be bothered to delivery his lines properly a lot of the time.

In one scene, Travolta yells “Don’t ever mention my wife again. It’s none of your fucking business!” to a superior officer with all the squeaky bravado of a teenager going through puberty.

It also doesn’t help that his partner is played by James Gandolfini, who acts circles around Travolta in virtually every scene they’re in together.

This weak lead performance really takes the shine away from some of the film’s finer qualities, since director Todd Robinson actually put a lot of work into creating a immersive atmosphere by littering the movie with tasteful tributes to classic film noir.

Not only is the soundtrack suitably jazzy and retro, but the grizzled voice-over narration by Gandolfini does a great job of setting the scene for a post-WWII America that is riddled with crime.

As the film’s sole screenwriter, Robinson also sneaks in some nice character development for Travolta’s character, whose quest to find meaningful intimacy mirrors Fernandez and Beck’s homicidal love story.

It’s too bad that Travolta’s half-baked acting sticks out like a sore thumb, especially when everybody else in front of the camera (and behind it) is firing on all cylinders.

And while the filmmakers definitely play fast and loose with their “based on a true story” hook, Lonely Hearts still manages to retain the dysfunction and creepiness of its real-life subjects, which makes it a compelling watch for anyone who is a fan of serial killer dramas.

Just try not to get distracted by Travolta’s bad acting, or his tough-guy toupee.

Verdict:

7/10

Corner store companion:

Hersey’s Kisses (because if you’re a movie nerd like me, chances are these are the only kisses you’ll be getting on Valentine’s Day).

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Fun facts:

-Original release date:

April 30, 2006 (Tribeca Film Festival)

April 17, 2007 (limited release)

-Budget: $18 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $2,517,423 (worldwide)

-Director Todd Robinson is the grandson of Elmer Robinson, the real-life detective (played by Travolta in this film) who investigated the Lonely Hearts murders in the late 1940s.

-Despite not being the same race as their real-life counterparts, both Leto and Hayek underwent slight cosmetic alterations to get into their roles. While Leto had to shave the front of his head to match Raymond Fernandez’s hairline, Hayek wore contact lenses to replicate Martha Beck’s blue eyes.

-The story of the “Lonely Hearts Killers” has been portrayed on film a total of four times. Besides Lonely Hearts, the story has been re-told in Mexican with Deep Crimson (1996), in French with Alleluia (2014) and in black and white with the American cult classic The Honeymoon Killers (1970).