director/writer: Todd Robinson; cinematographer: Peter Levy; editor: Kathryn Himoff; music: Mychael Danna; cast: John Travolta (Elmer Robinson), Jared Leto (Ray Fernandez), Salma Hayek (Martha Beck), James Gandolfini (Det. Charles Hilderbrandt), Laura Dern (Rene), Scott Caan (Det. Reilly), Janet Long (Alice Krige), Dan Byrd (Eddie Robinson); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Holly Wiersma/Boaz Davidson; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; 2006)
“This is the version that’s easily forgettable.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Before Todd Robinson’s (“Amargosa”) beautifully photographed and detailed period film version of Lonely Hearts there were two others: the much superior Leonard Kastle’s 1970 cult B-movie “The Honeymoon Killers” and the also much superior Arturo Ripstein’s lyrical 1996 Mexican version entitled “Dark Crimson.” It should be noted that the lead investigator featured, Elmer Robinson (John Travolta), is the director’s grandfather.
Lonely Hearts is a lurid love story based on the real crimes of the Long Island couple Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez (Salma Hayek and Jared Leto), of the 1940s, who were infamous as the Lonely Hearts Killers. They were sleazebag grifters and ruthless killers who worked as a team, posing as brother and sister, who chose their lonely lovelorn vics via the personal ads.
The film opens with the suicide of the wife of detective Elmer Robinson, and then takes us three years later to 1948 as the guilt-ridden Nassau County, New York, detective covers up his deep depression by working hard and trying to raise his troubled teenage son Eddie (Dan Byrd) while secretly dating good-hearted workplace colleague Rene (Laura Dern).
Called to the gruesome death scene of a Long Island war widow found in a bloody bathtub, Robinson disagrees with his colleagues who call it a suicide and tags it as a lonely hearts murder. His longtime loyal partner, Det. Charles Hilderbrandt (James Gandolfini), who also narrates, goes along with the call even though he also thinks it’s a suicide. From hereon Robinson becomes obsessed with getting the killer.
The film veers back and forth between the cop’s story to get on with his life and the scam artist’s story of their sicko love affair. Fernandez, the narcissistic toupee wearing Latino Lothario, meets the damaged goods Martha, a vic of childhood incest, after he tries to scam her but when he finds she’s unemployed and broke ditches her. Martha, in heat, recognizing a soul mate, catches up with him and they team up as a brother and sister act whereby Fernandez would marry the lovelorn and open a joint checking account. Thereafter the new bride would mysteriously vanish (the couple would chop up and bury their vics and move to another state for another vic). They were caught in 1949, and both were executed by electric chair two years later at Sing Sing. Robinson’s part is less flashy than the killer’s and it has him morbidly carrying out his duties while dealing with his despair, while the parts with the killer couple are just plain sick.
The unpleasant story is further undermined by a miscast Hayek, who is too pretty and svelte to play the cold-hearted obese monster wife (who in reality was an ex-nurse who weighed 200 pounds) and not credible enough to be believed as the temptress misfit femme fatale who abandoned her two kiddies to be with her psychopathic lover boy (she had the ability to get lover boy to kill for her). This is a raunchy story that needed more heartless characters playing the killers, while the 1940s era cops might look beefy and act the part but are too dull to give the film any kick. It’s just too dreary, unpleasant and humdrum to be entertaining despite being so well-crafted. This is the version that’s easily forgettable.
REVIEWED ON 7/18/2009 GRADE: C+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/