"Random Hearts"

Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas get caught somewhere between their cheatin' dead spouses and a banal thriller.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Random Hearts" may be the latest of the recent movies addressing infidelity, but it sure isn't the stupidest. In Stanley Kubrick's fusty "Eyes
Wide Shut,"
a wife's fantasy of a transgression sets her
husband off on a numbingly un-erotic exploration of
the dark side of orgydom. By contrast, the transgressions in "Random
Hearts" are very real, and the movie feels like a modern piece of
filmmaking instead of an antique: When you whack it, it doesn't give off
that stale, old-lady's-parlor smell.

That's a good thing, because "Random Hearts" is a movie that needs a good whacking. It's frustrating to come across a picture that at least offers a fresh angle on a tired old theme, then have to struggle to stay awake through it. Director Sydney Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke give us plenty to think about; there's just altogether too much time to do so. And its two stars, Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas, try hard to send off sparks but only end up bumping against each other politely and amiably, like two solid, professional tugboats doing their job.

As romantic thrillers go, "Random Hearts" is marginally romantic and only the tiniest bit thrilling. Ford is the graying and handsomely grizzled Dutch Van Den Broeck, a sergeant in the internal affairs division of the Washington police department. Thomas is Kay Chandler, an upstanding and classy state senator gearing up to run for re-election.

When a plane goes down in Miami, carrying Dutch's wife and Chandler's husband (each of whom has fed a phony-business-trip excuse to the appropriate spouse), the grieving Dutch starts nosing around for clues about what was really going on with his wife. That leads him to Kay, who's been told that her husband was traveling with another woman (Dutch's wife, of course) when the plane crashed. Trying to control the damage so that her re-election bid won't be jeopardized, and also dealing with her feelings of grief and betrayal in her own private way, she tries valiantly to give Dutch the brush-off. He persists, and before long they end up in a woodsy cabin, taking comfort in each other even as Dutch continues to pick away at his wife's secret life.

That's hardly the end of it, of course. Dutch has found a mysterious key among his wife's effects, and he desperately wants to know which lock it fits. There's also a subplot involving crooked cops. But if the first half of the movie consists mostly of Dutch's showing up unannounced to try to talk to the brusque, reluctant Kay, in the second half -- when the two finally start to talk -- you wish that at least once in a while they'd change the subject to baseball or gardening, anything but their deceitful departed spouses.

Ford is an occasionally charming actor, but he isn't always the liveliest one, and his role here requires so much brooding that it doesn't bring out his best qualities. When he's not stomping around like a frustrated thundercloud, he's occasionally touching. He's good enough to make you realize that in some ways, ferreting out the details of his wife's infidelity is really just a desperate attempt to hang onto any trace of her -- any loop of handwriting, any trace of perfume -- that might be left.

But his sad-sack wretchedness wears out pretty quickly, and Thomas -- who's not at her best but at least manages to give a cool, likable performance -- ends up being saddled with the task of being the eternally sensible one. After being badgered by Dutch for yet another scrap of information, she lashes out at him, demanding to know why he keeps pushing. "So we know how stupid to feel?" she says, and her eyes seem to blaze, although her composure hasn't cracked. It's a wonderful line, and a smart one. Thomas never plays Kay as repressed. It's not that she doesn't want to face the truth about her husband's betrayal -- it's just that she doesn't see much good in sifting through the remaining evidence, either. As far as she's concerned, her husband's infidelity died with him. Being left behind, still hanging onto her love for him, is something she'll have to deal with day by day over the coming years, not in a frenzied whirlwind of questions and recriminations. What's potentially interesting about "Random Hearts" -- although the opportunity to fully explore it ends up being wasted -- is its suggestion that infidelity doesn't have to be the end of the world for anybody.

"Random Hearts" is a somber little movie, and you can understand why. Its two key characters aren't really in much of a mood to swing from the chandeliers, as new lovers should ideally feel inspired to do. But you still wonder why they can't take just a little bit more delight in each other. They never would have met, as the movie keeps reminding us, if their spouses hadn't first gone and done this terrible, hurtful thing and then had the further audacity to actually die.

At the very least, though, "Random Hearts" tries to put a fresh spin on an old subject and is never heavy-handedly moralistic. In one terrific sequence, one of Dutch's wife's co-workers describes her own experience to him: She returned home from work early one day and found her boyfriend in the shower with another woman. She left the apartment without saying a word, so devastated with pain that she momentarily forgot that she was seeing someone else, too. She stayed with her boyfriend, and she never said a word to him. She loved him, she admitted, but she also understood that the allure of romance -- the thing that pulls you away from one partner and toward another, if only temporarily -- isn't something that can be easily explained away or written off.

Pollack, who has a small role in the movie, as he did in "Eyes Wide Shut," could have set the woman's story up as being morally reprehensible, but he doesn't. In fact, it's exactly the kind of plain talk Dutch needs to hear in order to understand that although his wife behaved badly and selfishly, the fact of her affair doesn't necessarily negate her love for him. "Random Hearts" may be a dull picture, but at least, deep down, it's a sophisticated one. Unlike the orgy participants in "Eyes Wide Shut," not one character wears a mask. This is a plain-speaking movie, one that doesn't need any fancy art-house metaphors for the hidden self. Its characters are more concerned with airing those hidden selves out -- and showing that sometimes, that's a darker affair than hiding them away.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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