Lonely Hearts is not a bad movie. It’s more often than not a pretty good one; well made and filled with some excellent performances. Yet the movie never quite clicks, perhaps because it insists on telling two stories – one that is dramatic and one that slowly peters out, neither of which complement each other.
The film is loosely based on the true crimes of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, known as The Lonely Hearts Killers during their trial in the late 1940s. These two are surely among the most filmed American murderers, as Lonely Hearts marks the third movie about them (The Honeymoon Killers being the most famous). Jared Leto, looking so much like John Casale as to make a Fredo spin-off movie seem reasonable, is Raymond, a small-time lothario preying on women he meets through the personals. One of them ends up being Martha, played by Salma Hayek, and when she outsmarts his swindle, they fall in love. They hatch an idea – they’ll pretend to be a brother and sister, and they’ll work the lonely hearts together. But Martha, who has a past history of sexual abuse, is unstable at best. She grows jealous of the women Ray is romancing, and one night murders one of them.
That’s half the film. Interwoven with that is the story of two Long Island police detectives- John Travolta as Elmer Robinson and James Gandolfini as Charles Hildebrant – who come upon the Lonely Hearts case when they get assigned an apparent suicide. The woman is found dead in a bathtub, echoing Robinson’s wife’s own recent suicide. He become obsessed with the case, sure that there was something behind her death, that a young, attractive and well-off woman wouldn’t just kill herself. It turns out he was right – she was driven to suicide by Beck and Fernandez.
The film is written and directed by Todd Robinson, the grandson of the real Elmer Robinson… which makes me wonder why he took such massive liberties with the story? Anyone familiar with the case or the previous films knows that Salma Hayek is about the worst choice possible for Martha Beck; Camryn Manheim would have been better casting, since Beck was fat and ugly. The completely incorrect casting makes Hayek have to work twice as hard to show Beck as unhinged, since she’d have to be nuts to think that Leto would choose one of these other women over her. Obviously you cast Hayek to attract more financing, but it’s a frustrating change to reality, as is the switching of the ethnicities of the characters while keeping their last names the same.
I’ve never fully taken to Leto – he often seems to try a little too hard to be more grungy than he really is – but Lonely Hearts finds a perfect middle ground for him, and his performance is terrific. Ray is a vain manipulator of women who wears a rug to cover his very balding head (it’s when the toupee is off that Leto looks so Casale-ish), but with Martha he’s the one being manipulated and led into more and more casual murder, culminating in the drowning of a two-year old girl. Leto sells that spiral, bringing Ray through horror and disbelief through a beaten down exhaustion to a place where he’ll gun down a man on the side of the road just so he can have his dog.
The scenes with the killers are where the film starts to come to life. The chemistry between Hayek (who, although woefully miscast, is pretty good) and Leto is real, and the way that they nonchalantly accept their own depravity is chilling. The first murder in the film is among the creepiest I have ever seen – after Martha shoots Ray’s latest mark while the two are having sex, Ray and Martha begin making out even as he is covered in blood and the victim is on the floor next to the bed, gasping her last breaths.
Sadly the detective scenes keep stopping the momentum. Robinson is obviously making this movie because of his grandfather, but he never convinced me to care as much as he does. Because the actual detective work can’t fill in the whole running time, Robinson focuses heavily on Elmer’s home life – his son, scarred by his mother’s suicide, is getting into trouble and Elmer is secretly sleeping with one of the police station secretaries, afraid that the son will find out and never understand. Travolta’s not bad in this role (nothing in this movie is ‘bad’) but he’s not really that great, either. He seems tired more than depressed. Thankfully he’s surrounded by a top-notch cast including Gandolfini, Laura Dern as the secretary and, God help me, Scott Caan as an asshole younger detective. These actors raise their segments higher than you could expect, but never high enough to make the movie really sing.
If Robinson had figured out a better way to balance these stories, or had just jettisoned one of them altogether (although that would have to be the police story, and he would have had no interest in doing that), Lonely Hearts could have been a really good film. Too bad it’s not.