A PLACE IN LONESOME TOWN
(3 & 1/2 out of 4 stars)
DIRECTED BY TOM TYKWER
STARRING: JOHN TRAVOLTA, JAMES GANDOLFINI,
SALMA HAYEK, JARED LETO, LAURA DERN,
SCOTT CAAN, ALICE KRIGE
108 MINUTES RATED R
For some reason, Lonely Hearts was not released theatrically in 2006. Despite an all-star cast and a familiar story (that’s been made at least twice before), Todd Robinson’s fine film now gets a limited release in January, often a month into which so-so films are dumped. Had Hearts managed a release in 2006, it would probably have been praised universially. Such praise would be heaped upon it, probably, because the film is so much better than the other films in 2006 of its noirish ilk, namely the universally maligned The Black Dahlia and the marginal-at-best All The King’s Men.
Don’t be fooled: Lonely Hearts is the real deal. A noirish crime story with edge and, yes, heart.
Set in 1940’s America, the film follows two stories: 1) Detective Elmer C. Robinson’s (director Todd Robinson’s grandfather, incidentally) investigation into a series of murders allegedly committed by a duo known as The Lonelyhearts Killers; and 2) The story of how the killers came together and how they plied their murderous trade. Therefore, this is a film that’s more than a mere police procedural.
Detective Robinson is played by John Travolta with a pensive earnestness that works well. Travolta is restrained, if not “kinda blah” in the role—which is exactly how he should be, given the significant acting talent surrounding him in this film. His square, unhip detective might be Travolta’s best role in years.
Along with Travolta, Hearts gives us James Gandolfini playing Robinson’s partner Charles Hildebrandt, an honest but more emotive investigator. Todd Robinson’s script does more than just introduce us to these policemen: it tells us a little about who they are in their own lives. This development engenders a more personal cinematic technique also used when introducing us to the film’s villains.
Hearts’ second storyline concerns the twisted relationship of Raymond Fernandez and the manipulative Martha Beck. Fernandez is a Don Juan in a toupee—he romances women through personals and letters that fleece them out of their life savings in the process. He runs something called the “lonelyhearts” con. But when he meets Beck, his con-man becomes a murderer many times over. The conniving and mentally ill Beck controls the weakling Fernandez, influencing him to kill. This match made in Hell is difficult to watch. Beck has no guilt and acts entirely in her own self-interest, often to the detriment of those around her. She is a monster who seeks to possess the often whimpering Fernandez both phyically and emotionally.
Fernandez is played by Jared Leto in a star-making performance. The normally attractive Leto permits himself to look positively yucky in places by cutting his hair in a way that makes him appear bald. This means he has to wear a toupee that at times looks ridiculous. His scrawny physical appearance is coupled with a personality that ranges from romantic to uxorious; he remains a cowering husband, lorded over by Beck.
And almost Leto’s equal is the striking Salma Hayek as the formidable Martha Beck, the ruthless brains behind their murderous rampage. Under Beck’s tutelige, Fernandez moves from woman to woman, romancing and eventually killing them, taking their money. But money might not be Beck’s only goal. There is something taboo about Fernandez and Beck’s relationship, not just because they become serial murderers, but also because the bloodlust itself seems to be the fuel that keeps them aflame. An effort is made to make Hayek look less ravishing (the actual Beck was a hideous heffer), but this isn’t really successful. Hayek nonetheless succeeds in being truly evil.
The story of the Lonelyhearts Killers has been adapted for the screen before, most notably in a 1970 black and white cult classic entitled The Honeymoon Killers.
At the Tribeca Film Festival this year, the main complaint appeared to be that Hayek was just too good looking for the role of the beastly Beck. In the 1970 version, Beck was played by Shirely Stoler who reportedly was perfect physically and delivered a memorable performance. But if you’ve not seen the original, Hayek’s inveterate beauty should not be a distraction.