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Dustin Putman

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Random Hearts (1999)
2 Stars

Directed by Sydney Pollack
Cast: Harrison Ford, Kristen Scott Thomas, Charles Dutton, Kate Mara, Bonnie Hunt, Dennis Haysbert, Sydney Pollack, Dylan Baker, Richard Jenkins, Paul Guilfoyle, Susanna Thompson, Peter Coyote, Lynne Thigpen, Ariana Thomas, Bill Cobbs, Susan Floyd, Edie Falco.
1999 – 131 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for brief violence, profanity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 9, 1999.

"Random Hearts" is a motion picture clearly holding so much promise that, when midway through it throws its thought-provoking notions to the wind in order to develop a thoroughly unconvincing love story, you can't help but feel cheated. Tech credits are at the top of their game all-around, from Dave Grusin's appropriately atmospheric, jazzy music score that boasts as a counter for the character's uneasy feelings, to Philippe Rousselot's gorgeously polished cinematography that paints its attractive settings--Washington, D.C., New Hampshire, and Miami--with palpably vibrant flavor. All performances are impressively handled, as well, and the editing is mostly tight and well-paced, if slightly overlong. The film itself, however, is floundered by the heavy-handed romantic subplot that eventually becomes the main focus, and since we don't believe for a second the coldly-detached relationship, all tension evaporates in no time.

Adapted from a novel by Warren Adler and directed by Academy Award Winner Sydney Pollack (1985's "Out of Africa"), "Random Hearts" opens with an emotionally stirring first act, as we individually meet two strangers far-divided by their profession and status, yet will soon be drawn together under dire circumstances: Dutch Van Der Broeck (Harrison Ford), a happily-married D.C. cop in the internal affairs department, and Kay Chandler (Kristen Scott Thomas), a congresswoman who is in the midst of a bid to be re-elected. Throughout the day the film opens on, the big news on the television is the fatal airplane crash of a 747 headed for Miami that plunged into the Chesapeake Bay. Dutch thinks nothing of it, until he receives his wife's message on their home answering machine, letting him know she was unexpectedly called to do a catalogue shoot in Miami, and would be gone for the weekend. Acquiring her co-workers' help, Dutch discovers that there was no planned model shoot in Miami, and that, on the plane, his wife was seated next to a man--Kay's husband--and was listed on the ticket as Mr. Chandler's spouse. Devastated to think that the woman he thought he knew for years had been hiding countless secrets from him all along, Dutch seeks out Kay to tell her, but she makes it perfectly clear that she has a teenage daughter (Kate Mara) and a high-profile career to protect, and any information that leaks out about the affair will make front-page news on the D.C. papers.

That's the first hour. Dutch and Kay's first meeting surprisingly comes at the 60-minute mark, and what follows only comes off as little more than a gimmick to create romantic sparks in a story that it is truly unnecessary in. Both unknowingly travelling to Miami to check out the hotel their spouse's were to have met at, Kay and Dutch meet up, and after a night of salsa-dancing and alcohol "on the rocks," Kay breaks down crying in the car, and what does Dutch do? He probably tries to comfort her, you say? Nah! Instead, he roughly grabs her and they start to kiss and grope each other, to which Kay's immediate response is, "well, that was fun." As Dutch becomes more and more embroiled in his mission of finding out the particulars of his wife's affair, and Kay struggles to keep the press and her daughter from finding out the sordid truth, they look to each other for companionship, and indulge in a close, loving relationship that nonetheless must be kept a secret--at least, until she has lost the election, if she does.

The basic premise of "Random Hearts" should have been merely a jumping-off point to develop an engrossing, highly-charged drama about the issues of infidelity, death, and human relationships, and it honestly couldn't have been better in its opening sections. That Dutch keeps hearing about the crash on the news, and yet is oblivious to the fact that his wife has been killed, is deeply poignant, and his growing suspicions that the woman he loved was not the woman he thought he knew, is a fascinating concept, handled with precision and taut direction by Sydney Pollack. The portrait of Kay's prime discovery, in contrast, is also quite realistic. She is upset, of course, but in true political fashion, hides most of her feelings from the public, and tries to give off a strong exterior, when she is crying inside.

Once Dutch and Kay come together and first lock lips, the authenticity of the story vanishes, and the so-far contemplative, provocative tone dissolves into, more or less, the type of film Roger Ebert often labels a "Shaggy Dog Love Story," in which a romance is treated in the most cliched, overwrought manner, and is melodramatic simply for the purpose of being melodramatic. If this, the weakest aspect of the picture, still is stronger than the hideously corny romance in the recent "For Love of the Game," that still is a rather small compliment, and the only one I can give it. Like Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston, but to a slightly lesser extent, it is never believable that Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas are falling in love. Kay's characterizations, especially, make no sense and are hypocritical, as she is cold to Dutch one minute, and falling into his arms the next, then angry again. Has Hollywood recently been grossly misinformed that the way to get an audiece to care about a "love story" is to portray the characters as not being able to stand each other? To make an even more general criticism, Dutch and Kay never appear to be naturally swept away by each other; instead, they seem to be doing it for the sole purpose of moving the gradually deteriorating plot along.

Through its startling ups and downs, it is the powerful performances from Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas that keep the film afloat. With most of the supporting players wasted (save for Kate Mara's refined, quietly touching role as Kay's 15-year-old daughter), the show depends almost entirely on the charisma of Ford and Thomas. They have zero romantic chemistry on-screen, sorry to say, but when apart, give superior performances to almost anything else I've seen them in. Dutch's feelings of resentment and anger at his own cluelessness over his wife's "other life," are all the more effectively-drawn due to Ford's sometimes underrated acting chops. In a role not quite like any others he's played, and a far cry from his stock action pictures, Ford holds his own against Thomas, an always-sparkling actress who has the power to be both funny and firmly affecting.

When "Random Hearts" is good, it really is exceptional and unusually intelligent for a studio picture, but when it is mediocre (that would be the whole last 70 minutes, save for the final scene), it makes you downright frustrated. The screenplay, by Kurt Luedtke, is an extremely uneven one. With a first hour of such obvious power, how could Luedtke have taken such a disappointing u-turn? If the film had stayed on the more-than-promising course it originally was on before its derailment, the picture would have had the capability of being one of the best films of the year, and with someone such as Atom Egoyan (1997's "The Sweet Hereafter") at the helm, it undoubtedly would have been. As is, "Random Hearts" has one-half of terrific material, and then resorts to the ultimate betrayal: formulaic filmmaking.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman