Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees mulls over the cards stacked against this dramedy about an unusual love triangle. No jokes about "inside straight," please.
Three wild hearts. One sexy romantic comedy.
Back in 1993, it was highly unusual to find a film with this kind of love story: Girl loves girl, girl loses girl, girl hires male escort to win girl back. (Actually, now that I think about it, it's still pretty unusual.) Three of Hearts wasn't quite the groundbreaking effort it could have been, since it doesn't have the nerve to resist the familiar Hollywood conventions entirely, but it remains a highly watchable comedy-drama with considerable crossover appeal.
Facts of the Case
Poor Connie. Her beloved partner, Ellen (Sherilyn Fenn, Twin Peaks) has just dumped her—in public, no less, and right before the family wedding at which Connie (Kelly Lynch, Charlie's Angels) had planned to come out to her parents. But Ellen needs space. What's a girl to do but hire a male escort to accompany her to the wedding and save face?
As it happens, Joe (William Baldwin, Backdraft) turns out to be a gigolo with a heart of gold. As Connie's faux fiancé, he wins over her Polish family and, eventually, even the skeptical Connie herself. But not everyone is susceptible to his charm: He's being persecuted by a nasty crime boss called Harvey, and Joe's best friend and pimp, Mickey (Joe Pantoliano, Memento), hasn't been able to smooth things over. When Harvey's goons trash Joe's apartment, Connie offers him a place to stay—and asks a favor in return: Joe must make Ellen fall in love with him, then dump her, so that she'll come running back to her faithful Connie.
A crazy plan, you say? Just crazy enough to work, perhaps. That is, until Joe complicates everything by falling for Ellen. (Whoa, bet you didn't see that coming.)
Three of Hearts has a lot going for it: three likable, attractive leads; a premise that offers a modern twist on a classic screwball plot; and a stylish urban atmosphere, enhanced by an uptown musical score by Joe Jackson (yes, that Joe Jackson). Ultimately it doesn't quite succeed at being the smart, sophisticated romantic comedy it aims to be, but it comes close. If the writer and director had resisted the urge to take the film into the realm of serious drama, and the concomitant clichés, Three of Hearts would have my wholehearted support. As it is, there's a rather schizophrenic tendency here that results in the movie's being neither one thing nor the other. An intelligent, unconventional ending nearly redeems it, but I'd be a lot happier if we hadn't been dragged through the emotional morass of the film's third act by the time we get there.
To be sure, most of the movie is a bright, enjoyable comedy. As it opens, we are introduced to Joe, who is telecommuting, as it were, from a hot bath. It's an effective way of establishing him as sexy, smooth, and yet not entirely on top of things, since he's forgotten that nothing throws a wrench into phone sex like call waiting. I'm not sure if it's a compliment to say that Baldwin is completely believable as a male escort; he has the slightly too suave good looks and manner, and he's a bit too adept at deploying his puppy-dog eyes. But under the hair pomade and gold jewelry is an all-around nice guy with a self-effacing sense of humor, as we soon discover. Baldwin makes us care about Joe and hope to see him find a woman who sees more in him than just a piece of meat.
Likewise, Kelly Lynch as Connie is lovable and funny even as she's tending her broken heart. It's easy to believe her character is a nurse, since she seems like someone who would find a vocation caring for people (even though the patient we see her treating gets handled a little roughly due to her preoccupation with Ellen). Lynch's performance is natural and sincere, and she and Baldwin click beautifully as friends. In fact, they make such a great couple—albeit a platonic one—that it's difficult to envision either being happier with Ellen.
In some ways Sherilyn Fenn, as the object of desire, has the toughest role, and I'm not entirely sure she pulls it off. Fenn brings a sweet vulnerability as well as her movie-goddess looks to the role, but Ellen seems a bit unformed. Even by the end of the film I felt that I knew her least of the three leads; then again, perhaps we're seeing someone who truly hasn't found herself yet. (Okay, I admit it, part of my problem with Ellen may be pure envy: She has a cushy job as a teaching assistant at NYU, which allows her to teach one lone creative writing class and still afford chic little outfits and a funky apartment in town. Forget dating her—can I be Ellen?) When Joe falls in love with her, it's not a total surprise, because it's the expected plot development, but it's a bit difficult to believe nonetheless. Perhaps what Joe is really attracted to in Ellen is the way she represents a different life for him, a different identity: Since she doesn't know what he does for a living, she is the only person he knows who doesn't think of him as a hooker. He can open up to her without seeing cynicism or mockery in her eyes, or he can put on an act and be taken at face value. In loving Ellen, Joe is also falling in love with the way she sees him.
Where the movie falters is in trying to introduce darker undercurrents. There is the unnecessary Harvey subplot, for one thing, which seems to exist only to make us aware of the seamier side of Joe's life and to offer a pretext for bad things to happen to him when the plot demands it. All Joe and Mickey seem to talk about together is Harvey's belief that Joe ratted him out, which becomes all the more exasperating once we realize we're never going to find out who actually did the ratting out. For a subplot that's given so much screen time, we expect a bit of payoff. The story also gets bogged down in lots of yelling and contrived emotional confrontations when both women realize Joe has been deceiving them and when Joe's newly discovered self-respect awakens discontentment with his line of work. There's even one of those scenes in which we see our hero running faster and faster through the city streets, trying to escape his painful existence. Yawn. When a movie starts out smart, it's especially disappointing to see it dwindle into such conventionality.
Nonetheless, I have to give Three of Hearts a tip of the hat for daring. In 1993, it was pretty bold for Hollywood to make a film whose main characters are a lesbian, a bisexual, and a gigolo—and to treat them seriously, as people rather than curiosities. And even when the film slips into more conventional plot developments, such as the heterosexual romance, it maintains an intelligence that's increasingly rare in mainstream movies. I particularly appreciate the ending, which could have blundered badly but found its footing and (to mix a metaphor) its real heart. (In fact, the alternate ending included as a DVD extra shows that the film could have ended in a more conventional Hollywood conclusion, which would have been an outright cheat.) It may well be that the film was trying to be everything to everyone—a gay romance, a straight romance; a sophisticated comedy, a gritty drama—and that its overreaching resulted in a mild identity crisis. But again, it's nice to see a film that dares to overreach instead of taking the safe, boring route to box office success.
The lack of a commentary on this disc is disappointing; I would have been very interested to hear director Yurek Bogayevicz discuss some of the choices he made. Besides the alternate ending, the only real extra is a series of trailers for other movies featuring gay themes: Torch Song Trilogy, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. There are DVD-ROM links to New Line, and that seems to be it. Even without goodies, however, this is a nice DVD presentation, with a sharp-looking transfer that makes the most of the stylish, subdued urban palette. The presence of no less than three sound options seems excessive to me, since this is a dialogue-driven film without a lot of sound effects, but Joe Jackson's score certainly sounds sensational in surround (and try saying that ten times fast).
Despite its unevenness in tone and its tendency to backslide into conventional territory, Three of Hearts is an agreeable comedy-drama with solid performances and a refreshingly adult attitude. It's certainly worth a rental, and since I suspect it may be one of those films whose appeal will grow on repeat viewings, I deem it a worthwhile purchase despite the paucity of extra content.
Harvey and his subplot are sentenced to exile from moviedom. All other parties are declared not guilty and are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Alternate Ending
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