Judge Patrick Bromley says that a cast featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh is a terrible thing to waste.
In the Warren house, if you're not part of the problem, you're part of the family.
It's unusual, I think, for a cast this good to flounder this badly. And, yet, Michael Bortman's 1991 ensemble family drama Crooked Hearts somehow manages the task of taking a talented group of actors and stranding them in a go-nowhere, do-nothing story of squabbling siblings and reopened wounds. It's yet another film that mines dysfunction for drama, building conflict without character and replacing action with arguing. This is kind of film in which the real story, involving one character's past relationship with a waitress, doesn't even show itself until the movie is half over. Without the focus of an actual plot before that point, are we still meant to care when one finally does surface? Incidentally, the waitress is played by Marg Helgenberger of In Good Company. See? I told you the cast was good.
The movie follows the exploits of the Warren family, another in a long tradition of brainy, liberal, suburban movie families that (believe it or not) isn't quite as blissfully happy as they appear to be on the surface. The prodigal son, Tom (Peter Berg, The Great White Hype), has just returned home after dropping out of college. His rebellious older brother, Charley (Vincent D'Onofrio, Full Metal Jacket, Malcolm X) has failed to ever make it out of town, try as he might to escape the magnetic clutches of the Warrens. Bookish dad Edward (Peter Coyote, Femme Fatale) has a dark secret he's trying desperately to cover up while still trying to maintain appearances, and younger siblings Cassie (Juliette Lewis, Too Young to Die? (The True Stories Collection)) and the pretentiously named Ask (Noah Wyle, Donnie Darko) trade off in a tag-team of cluelessness and sensitivity.
I've tried my hardest to describe the characters in such a way that you, reader, will be able to keep them all straight; in doing so, I've actually drawn them more vividly than the film is able to. In reality, these characters do not even exist on their own—they are defined only in relation to one another. There is nothing that distinguishes Vincent D'Onofrio's Charley as a character beyond the fact that he is the older sibling of the other three; same goes for Juliette Lewis, whose character can be described as "the youngest" and little more. I cannot blame the actors, who have both mesmerized me in other performances; this is a shapeless, repetitive film (based on a Robert Boswell novel, unread by me) that so heavily focuses on its "ensemble" aspect that it fails to consider the individuals that make the ensemble up.
Take, for example, Jennifer Jason Leigh (Short Cuts), who is wasted in a thanklessly underwritten role as Tom's new hometown girlfriend. My question is this: why even bother casting Leigh—who was and is one of my very favorite working actors—if there really isn't even a reason for her part to exist? She doesn't drive any of the plot, nor does she illuminate anything about the other characters—least of all Tom, who is unchanged by his relationship with her. I suspect that the film would like us to believe that his final act is made possible by her presence, but that's dishonest. He does what he does because of the events that have come before, not because he's dating Leigh. In fact, Crooked Hearts gains nothing from her participation, with the exception that a) she looks pretty and b) I'll watch the film because she's in it. Noah Wyle actually comes off best out of the whole bunch, successfully creating a character that exists outside of the moment; his Ask (I'll reiterate that no movie with a character named Ask can be entirely free of pretense, which Crooked Hearts demonstrates) is an introverted, skittish and sweet young man with clear ideas about how his life should be lived. He's the Sensitive One—the Heart of the Warrens. Of course, because he's sweet and sensitive (heck, he even wears glasses), his fate is sealed as soon as the movie starts. I guess expecting Crooked Hearts to be the family drama that bucks cinema convention is too much to ask.
I suppose the good news is that MGM has made Crooked Hearts available at all; for a long time, it was one of a list of films I was unsuccessfully seeking out. After all, how could I not see a film with this cast? The DVD of the film is about what I would expect: free of extras and presented with pretty decent picture and sound quality. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer shows some signs of aging, but is still totally watchable. Likewise, the stereo audio track handles the dialogue nicely without breaking any new ground, and, trite as it may be at times, dialogue is about all this movie has going for it.
Crooked Hearts is not an awful film. It is, however, dull and forgettable and plays it completely safe—with a cast this strong, playing it safe is perhaps its greatest offense. How can a film featuring Juliette Lewis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Vincent D'Onofrio—three actors who have built careers out of risky, dangerous performances—manage to be so pedestrian? So unable to focus is this movie that it continues to give us exposition even as nearly all of the end credits have rolled. I guess the filmmakers just couldn't find anywhere else to fit it in.
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