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Case Number 11775

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Lonely Hearts

Sony // 2006 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // July 31st, 2007

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All Rise...

This is not Judge Roy Hrab's first DVD review, but it is his first review of a DVD with a title that does not start with the letters "Th". Did that just blow your mind?

The Charge

Some people would kill to be in love.

Opening Statement

Lonely Hearts is a serious and ambitious film with a unique narrative approach. There is a good movie in here somewhere, but it fails to reveal itself. Despite a strong effort from its cast, Lonely Hearts suffers from significant structural flaws. It has too much story to tell in too little time.

Facts of the Case

The film is based on the true story of the "Lonely Hearts Killers": Martha Beck (Salma Hayek, Desperado) and Raymond Fernandez (Jared Leto, Panic Room). During the late 1940s, the pair conned and murdered a number of lonely women that they found in personal ads. The pair was apprehended by police in 1949. Both were sentenced to death. In 1951, Beck and Fernandez were executed by electric chair.

Lonely Hearts follows the exploits of Beck and Fernandez as well as two detectives involved in the case: Elmer "Buster" Robinson (John Travolta, Get Shorty) and Charles Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini, The Man Who Wasn't There).

The Evidence

Lonely Hearts does not feature cat-and-mouse games between killers and detectives. It does not contain drawn-out scenes of the murderers executing their victims (although there are some very violent scenes). There are no chases or shootouts. There is no attempt to glamorize the villains or the heroes. Further, the film ignores the reportedly sensational trial of Beck and Fernandez completely. Instead, it chooses to document events in a detached manner. A novel approach to be sure, but is it successful? Not this time around.

Lonely Hearts chooses to focus equally on both the killers and detectives. This is not a problem per se. In fact, this could have been a strength of the movie. However, in this case, it is a major flaw because the film's slim 108-minute runtime does not allow for many storyline switches between the cops and killers. Yet, the movie cuts between the two teams a number of times, moving from Buster and Hildebrandt, to Beck and Fernandez, to Buster and his son, back to Beck and Fernandez, to Buster and his girlfriend (Laura Dern, Blue Velvet), etc. It is a poor strategy that kills momentum, undermines character development, and sabotages storylines. Coupled with the film's distant approach in general, few insights into the characters are gained and the film never gels into a sound whole.

For example, the intention of the secondary storylines of Robinson and his son, and Robinson and his girlfriend, is clear: Buster still suffers from a lonely heart as a result of his wife's unexplained suicide some years earlier and is coming to terms with it slowly. Indeed, almost all the characters in the film are "lonely hearts," looking for a love, or trying to hold on to a love, that they hope will fulfill them. Of course, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of achieving this. Clearly, Beck and Fernandez represent an unhealthy love. The victims represent a misguided love. Finally, the evolution of Buster's relationship with his son and girlfriend are supposed to represent a healthy love. However, the lack of time given to all these relationships leaves them underdeveloped and without resonance. In particular, the epilogue about Buster does not ring true.

The movie looks and sounds fine. The video transfer is lucid and detailed. The Dolby Digital sound is clear. The dialogue and music come through without problem. No complaints here.

The extras are thin. There are some trailers (which do not include the trailer for Lonely Hearts) and a short "Making Of" featurette. In the featurette, the cast and crew talk about the theme of the movie, the characters, and the attention paid to period detail. The featurette also reveals that the writer and director of Lonely Hearts, Todd Robinson, is the grandson of Elmer "Buster" Robinson. I suppose that this family connection explains the film's deferential and non-sensationalistic style. While this is laudable, Lonely Hearts does not provide any elements of interest to compensate for its distant approach to the story.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

In spite of its flaws Lonely Hearts is redeemed partially by its cast. The four main players are uniformly solid. Travolta and Gandolfini are a good team. Travolta neatly presents a man who is an expert at internalizing his emotions, while Gandolfini provides contrast as the more animated Hildebrandt, a man who is concerned about the state of mind of his partner. Hayek and Leto also work well together. LetoÂ's impressive performance fits the role of Ray Fernandez quite well. He presents a pathetic figure that also possesses the ability to ooze charm and sleaze simultaneously. Similarly, Hayek delivers a better than expected performance as the psychotic and insanely jealous femme fatale. Supporting performers such as Laura Dern as Robinson's girlfriend are wasted as a result of the narrative structure, though.

Closing Statement

Film-noir and true-crime buffs only need apply. Lonely Hearts would have turned out better had it taken the time to tell its story fully, as done by Shohei Imamura in his true-crime classic Vengeance Is Mine.

The Verdict

Guilty of a lack of depth and excessive solemnity.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 15
Acting: 80
Story: 60
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• English
• French
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Crime
• Drama
• Film Noir

Distinguishing Marks

• Making of Featurette
• Trailers


• IMDb

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