Some people fall in love, some people step in it.
Director Robert Greenwald, maker of such TV-movies as Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold and Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story (I swear they're real), brings us this romantic comedy/buddy movie (a feature film, no less) starring Don Johnson (Nash Bridges) and Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) as a long-married couple on the verge of divorce.
Facts of the Case
Wiley and Sandra Boon (Johnson and Sarandon) seem to have it all: high school sweethearts grown up and married with three kids, living an idyllic life in Smalltown, U.S.A., packed with picket fences, mom-and-pop shops, and the collective shared memories of people who've known each other their entire cloistered lives. Despite the Norman Rockwell milieu, Wiley decides he just doesn't want to be a family man anymore.
Trying to mediate the mess that follows is Wiley's best friend, Sam Manners (Jeff Daniels, Dumb And Dumber), a high school principal and lifelong bachelor who's simultaneously falling hard for elementary school teacher Adie Nims (Elizabeth Perkins, Big). Can Wiley and Sandra and Sam and Adie sort out there tangled romantic connections and friendships?
Is Sweet Hearts Dance a good film? Not really. But it isn't terrible, either. It's what women in my family would likely describe as "cute." If you like cute movies, this is probably for you. The film's primary problem is Greenwald's seeming inability to decide whether he wanted to make a light romantic comedy or a sharp examination of human relationships. The movie has characteristics of both, but none fully formed, leaving us with an uneven and not quite satisfying viewing experience.
Also annoying is the way the story's structured around holiday events signaled by title cards like Halloween, The First Frost, Giving Thanks, and Coming Home. I mean, it's no skin off my nose if Greenwald and screenwriter Ernest Thompson (On Golden Pond) wanted to go with such a formalist framework, but once the choice was made, they should've been consistent. The initial sections are tight little vignettes whose brevity lends them a narrative crispness. Soon, however, the segments begin to sprawl. Instead of sticking to the vignette format, finding a way to make the story work within the narrow confines selected, multiple scenes with wider dramatic arcs are inserted. Somebody (probably Thompson) should've decided before shooting that the vignette structure was just too limiting and scrapped the whole thing, rather than doing it half way.
But what's good? The performances. The four leads are wholly responsible for preventing the film from being a complete waste of time; they're likable and have a nice chemistry with one another. Don Johnson's performance is especially important since Wiley behaves reprehensibly, leaving his wife and children with very little motivation. In the skin of a less likable actor, the character would've been too much to stomach. (Which brings us back to the clash of styles that is the root of the movie's problems: Wiley would be a much stronger character if the film had been a modern-day screwball comedy in which he was played as a type, a man restless with his nearing middle-age; played more for laughs and as a device to drive the narrative, viewers would never bother wondering about his psychological motivations for running from his family) Sarandon brings grace to a character equally bizarre in her stoic acceptance of her husband's behavior (again, better suited to screwball, I think). Daniels has good chemistry with both Perkins as his love interest and Johnson as his best friend, and brings charm to a character who is otherwise a dolt. Perkins is Perkins, with the real-woman good looks and intelligence she brings to just about every role she plays. In addition to the four leads, Justin Henry (Kramer vs. Kramer) gives a solid turn as the Boons' son, Kyle, who pulls a Biff Loman, catching Wiley in an act of infidelity (although Greenwald never gets around to exploring the Freudian implications of the event or otherwise resolving it satisfactorily).
The DVD presents the film in full screen pan-and-scan, which is completely unacceptable. "Is it really such a big deal since it's just a little romantic comedy we're talking about?" you might ask. Yeah, it is. First of all, it's a big deal in principle: if the film was presented theatrically at 1.85:1, that's how I want to watch it in my home. Period. Secondly, the director of photography happens to've been Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense), and he actually squeezes some nice shots into this movie that are marred by the cropped presentation. For example, there's a 360° rising crane shot of some ice-skates on a lake that's ruined, as well as an entire scene that takes place on a row of balconies in a Caribbean hotel whose shot compositions are completely trashed. The quality of the transfer is otherwise unremarkable but clean and nicely rendered. There are minor blemishes here and there, and some grain is apparent.
The soundtrack has no flaws to draw attention to itself, which is as much as I'd expect for this type of film.
If I had only one word with which to describe Sweet Hearts Dance it'd be "innocuous." I could easily produce a laundry list of romantic comedies better than this one, but the charm of the leads prevents it from being a disaster and actually provides a level of entertainment.
Case dismissed. I advise Sweet Hearts Dance never to find itself in my courtroom again. I might not be so lenient next time.
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