All right — first of all, let’s just put our feelings toward Jared Leto and John Travolta aside. Hell, let’s not allow our perception of Salma Hayek and James Gandolfini to color our opinion of Lonely Hearts, either. Let’s also, for a moment, forget that the true story of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck has been told before, in what must have been the infinitely superior 1970 film, The Honeymoon Killers.
Instead, let’s — for a second — just focus on the first five minutes of Lonely Hearts. Let’s gander at the first scene after the credits have finished rolling: Elmer “Buster” Robinson (Travolta) and Charles Hildebrandt (Gandolfini) walk down a flight of stairs and into a viewing room, where we are given a close-up of an electric chair. Gandolfini’s voiceover states in hackneyed Ellroyian terms: “If any two maggots ever deserved to boil in their own shit, it was Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck.” Cut to three-years earlier, in which we are shown Ray Fernandez (Leto), a confidence man, picking up lonely ladies and swindling their money, until Martha Beck (Hayek) comes along and falls in love with him immediately, despite her knowledge of what he does for a living.
So what can we conclude from the first five minutes, having absolutely no previous knowledge of Fernandez and Beck? Well, we know from Gandolfini’s voiceover that they are going to be fried in the electric chair, and we know too (because con men don’t get the chair for conning) that Beck and Fernandez will kill a few people. And because Robinson and Hildebrandt are at the execution, we can fairly assume that they will be the cops responsible for catching them.
(Spoiler Warning Ahead for Those Who Lack a Sense of the Obvious.)
And that’s pretty much exactly what happens. There are no surprises in Lonely Hearts. Everything plays out almost as you’d expect it from watching the first five minutes. So, why start with that information, when writer/director Todd Robinson has no intention of throwing any curveballs our way? Beats the hell out of me. Honest to God, watching Lonely Hearts is akin to reading the last chapter of a pulp detective novel, and then starting from the beginning. Only here, instead of meaty Sam Spade-type characters, pulpy dialogue, and hard-boiled detective work, we’re given John Travolta and Jared Leto, who are about as fun to watch as thrombosis, never mind that Leto is one of the more detestable celebrities in Hollywood, that Travolta takes his cues from Xenu, that Gandolfini plays the same character he always plays (Tony Soprano as a cop) or that Hayek — pretty she may be — still has absolutely no big-screen talent.
But what’s really perplexing about Lonely Hearts is that Todd Robinson leaves out one of the more intriguing aspects of the story, namely that Martha Beck was an extremely obese woman whose girth was a metaphor for her sexual appetite and raging jealousy, which acted as a powder keg to their killing spree. What the fuck was the casting director thinking? “Hey, we need an unlikable 233-pound nurse who looks like a sack of potatoes with three chins strapped on top.” “Sweet! You think Salma Hayek would be available?”
In the true story of Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, as in the cinematic travesty, Martha and Ray meet through the Lonely Hearts correspondence club and together operate a scheme in which Ray would woo women, propose marriage to them, and steal their money, while Martha posed as his sister, allowing her to keep an eye on her lover. But it was Martha’s insane jealousy that provoked her to kill Ray’s con victims in the first place, for fear that Ray would fall in love with them. Here, the same feelings drive her motives, but we’re left looking at Salma Hayek and wondering why in fuck’s name would she even be interested in Ray Fernandez as Leto depicts him: A weaselly, balding, sniveling guy with only marginal acting ability. If you were the type to yell things at the screen, you’d probably scream, “Look in the mirror, Salma. Have you seen that booty of yours? Why are you bothering with that shitheel?”
And, of course, Todd Robinson is not content to just muck up the should-be fascinating serial killer story, he also decides to screw up a separate subplot, this one focusing on Buster’s motivation (the guilt of his wife’s suicide) to track down Fernandez and Beck, as well as a ridiculous and superfluous affair between him and a co-worker (Laura Dern) that adds absolutely nothing to the proceedings. And you’d think that Robinson might be able to liven up this particular plotline, knowing that it was based upon his own goddamn grandfather’s investigation. But in fact, Robinson’s account is far less salacious than the true story of Beck and Fernandez played out, which included instances in which Beck would “try out” Fernandez’s lovers, if you get what I mean.
So, essentially what Robinson has done here is to take a very interesting story, sanitize it, and replace detestable real-life serial killers with the more aesthetically pleasing Leto and Hayek, forsaking all the really grim, scandalous and sensational details of the real story, giving us a a serial killer flick for the People magazine demographic. Oh, and for good measure, he also throws in some godawful Gandolfini voice-overs (“He was quite the bard. Always slipping in a little fishing expedition to feel out their bank accounts. He smelled money: Valentino. He thought they were broke: He’d bounce them like a bad check.”) just to compound the misery, because what we, the audience, needs more than anything is another reason to hate Lonely Hearts.
But for all of you who would love nothing more than to see Jared Leto fry in an electric chair, Lonely Killers at least has that going for it. Sadly, it has little else.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Lonely Hearts / Dustin Rowles
Film | April 10, 2007 | Comments ()