Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sydney Pollack: Random Hearts

There’s an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where Larry David – in hopes of winning back his wife Cheryl – agrees to do a reunion show for “Seinfeld.” While filming the show, Michael Richards is waiting to hear back from his doctor on whether or not he has Groats Disease, and he complains to Larry that he just doesn’t think he can be funny with this diagnosis hanging over his head. Larry tells him he knows a guy that has beaten Groats, and he’ll get him to talk to Richards about it. When Larry’s sidekick/moocher-that-won’t-leave Leon does Larry a favor by pretending to be that someone, he convinces Richards that all he needs to do is wear his lucky hat, and the Groats will go away. So, the next scene they rehearse for the reunion show, Richards (as Kramer) is wearing this ridiculous hat. Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus break character and laugh hysterically because of how ridiculous it looks, advising him that he can’t wear the hat because people don’t want to see this version of Kramer, they want to see the guy they remember; the guy with the wacky hair.

Why did I just start a review of Sydney Pollack’s downer (in more ways than one) of a movie Random Hearts with this example from David’s show? Because Harrison Ford has this earring that he wears throughout Random Hearts that is so incredibly distracting that it reminded me of the conversation Seinfeld and Dreyfus have with Richards about his hat. This is not the Harrison Ford I remember. I know a silly little thing like an earring shouldn’t take me out of the movie, but I just couldn’t help myself: scene after scene I found myself paying more attention to Ford’s ear than the other stuff happening on the screen.

And that’s really one of the problems with Random Hearts: I was distracted by little things like that because there just isn’t anything all that interesting happening in this dour, dour movie. Oh, Random Hearts didn’t have to be dour; no, this could have been a decent melodrama about two confused, frustrated people looking for answers as to why their spouses were cheating on them. However, the whole thing just kind of sits there, inert and lacking any kind of emotional conviction about its characters and the truths they discover about their deceased spouses and each other.

The premise of Random Hearts is set up nicely for a typical Sydney Pollack film, by which I mean the primary metaphor that we’ve talked about throughout all of Pollack’s films – male/female relationship as a metaphor for opposing world views – is right in play (as is his penchant for making movies with big stars). The plot concerns William “Dutch” Van Den Broeck (Harrison Ford), an Internal Affairs Sergeant, and Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thompson), a Republican Congresswoman, and how their respective spouses had been cheating on them. However, the twist of Random Hearts is that Dutch and Kay have no idea their respective spouses were cheating on them until news of plane crash hits TV and airline officials show up to inform them of the bad news. This leads to the two finding out that their spouses were on the plane because they were meeting up for one of their trysts. Of course, this leads to Dutch and Kay falling in love (sort of). The latter part of the story is held off for a while as we wait to see how Dutch and Kay will react to the news that their spouses were cheating on them.

The idea isn’t bad; it lends itself to the type of melodrama that Pollack admired from the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, as the film progresses, we see Dutch – in between a horrible subplot concerning a crooked cop played by Dennis Haysbert – investigating why his wife was on the plane and how his own personal investigation is affecting his work. This, unfortunately, is the primary point of view for Random Hearts when Kay’s story of running for office, and how her personal situation affects her work, is much more interesting. Had Pollack swapped the point of view, I think Random Hears may have worked; instead, the director chooses to follow around the mopey Dutch as Ford gruffly mumbles his way through one of his worst performances. However, Ford isn’t the only problem. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a problem. As I mentioned in the opening, there were little things he did – choices he made as an actor that include keeping that earring in – that were just baffling to me and didn’t showcase the quiet actor so good at burying emotions like he did in Witness. I realize his character is mourning in his own way, but there are scenes with his Internal Affairs partner (Charles S. Dutton) where the only reason we have to believe that he cares about him so much is that they’re partners.

Nothing in the film has given us any insight into Dutch as a person, so we have no way of feeling anything for his character. Why doesn’t he mourn or cry (I understand people mourn in different ways, but why not just one little quick piece of exposition letting us know that Dutch and his wife had problems because he internalizes things)? The point of view is all off in this film. Ford’s character seems like he’s hurt by this, but we’re never allowed to see why. I mean, what was it about his marriage that is keeping him going with the investigation into why she was cheating on him? Because the way Dutch reacts to all of this is as if he’s more interested in finding out the identity of the person she was cheating on him with than the fact that she’s dead. We’re never allowed to know – either through exposition or just Pollack letting his camera linger long enough on a scene for Ford’s face to do the talking – what Dutch is feeling. There are so many scenes that needed to be re-edited or altogether expunged in order for the film to breathe a little bit and allow the actors to create characters. And so, yes, the acting here by Ford is a big problem, but the editing is just frustrating.

Random Hearts is cut together so oddly. There are moments where it feels like the film is really getting some momentum in scenes between Thompson and Ford – especially in a nice moment towards the end of the film where Kay and Dutch share some quiet moments at a cabin – but then the Dennis Haysbert subplot acts as such an annoying interloper. I was never able to get fully engaged in the primary relationship between Kay and Dutch – a prototype we’ve seen in almost all of Pollack’s films – because of the way other, less interesting, story elements involving Dutch kept getting in the way. Random Hearts is based on a novel (by Warren Adler), so I’m wondering if this material read better than what the finished product on film ended up being; however, that even makes the film more frustrating because Pollack and longtime collaborator and script cleaner-upper David Rayfiel usually do a fine job molding their source material into workable screenplays. Here, though, it’s obvious that Random Hearts needed another round of edits.

And so I go back to the fact that Kristin Scott-Thompson is more interesting than Harrison Ford, yet Pollack didn’t seem to think so since we get less of Kay’s world than Dutch’s. And what a shame, too, since Kay’s political world is filled with great character actors like Bonnie Hunt, Richard Jenkins, and Pollack himself in a great cameo. Pollack and Jenkins are great as Thompson’s political advisors, and the film is at its most engaging when we get the behind the scenes talk about things like skeletons in the closest (Pollack’s first scene with Thompson is a winner) or how they’ve gotten a “sympathy bump” from Thompson’s husband dying in the plane crash. Yes, these scenes are well acted and interesting; however, like the silly police investigation, it’s still just ancillary stuff that detracts from what should be the primary relationship drawing us into the story.

Random Hearts is such a disappointing step down from what Pollack had done in the mid-‘90s. I know that Sabrina and The Firm aren’t his most revered films, but I love them and their classical feel. Random Hearts is just too all over the place; it’s inert in the same way that Havana is. And a lot of that blame falls on Pollack for not instilling life into the film’s primary relationship. In fact, Havana and Random Hearts are almost the exact same film: interesting idea, horribly executed screenplay, aging star that seems altogether disinterested, misplaced point of view, and a strong supporting cast that isn’t given much to do. I want to end by bringing up Ford’s earring again, not because it’s important but because it represents what’s wrong with Random Hearts: it’s distracting. Everything that doesn’t work about this film is because it’s distracting from what so obviously does work. Kay, not Dutch, is the most interesting character. But we’re pretty much deprived of her story because Pollack wanted to focus on Dutch’s distracting Internal Affairs subplot. The editing is distracting because just as we’re about to get emotionally invested, the film pulls away – keeping the viewer at arm’s length as much as Dutch does with his partner – leaving the viewer cold and frustrated. There was a big ‘ol cheesy romantic melodrama (like something akin to Pollack’s The Way We Were) in here somewhere – the kind of film I can get behind when made earnestly – but Pollack messes it up by distracting the viewer with all kinds of elements that nearly as interesting as he thought.

Pollack would take a five year break – focusing more on producing and acting – before making his final (fiction) film with 2005’s The Interpreter


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