One more dip into the tin-eared neo-noir well, Lonely Hearts is based on the Martha Beck/Ray Fernandez killing spree of the late ‘40s, a subject that was handled earlier by The Honeymoon Killers. That film had its problems, with its curious ‘60s blend of Night of the Living Dead and early John Waters, but it seems like a masterpiece compared to this concoction, which founders on hilarious miscasting all the way down the line. First we have John Travolta as the investigator on the case (the real-life investigator also happens to be writer-director Todd Robinson’s grandfather). Travolta, no one’s idea of a tough, stoic man of action, wears a creepy toupee with red highlights, and his version of pained moral discomfort is pure camp. As his partner, a charmless James Gandolfini also wears an obvious toup that’s supposed to look real. As Fernandez, Jared Leto wears two latex pieces on his forehead to suggest the man’s receded hairline: the make-up lines on these pieces are visible in several shots, and the actor seems more like a kid straining and overacting in a scene study class than a dangerous killer.
If the film’s bad luck with casting can be itemized neatly by surveying the fake hair and false baldness of the male leads, its main problem comes to a delirious head in the casting for Beck, a plug-ugly American nurse who weighed over 200 pounds. The perfect role for Salma Hayek, right? (I suppose Dame Maggie Smith was unavailable). At first, Hayek plays this blundering incongruity for hot-to-trot fun, but when she tries to get all soulful, the switch doesn’t work. There’s almost no compassion shown for the women the pair kill, but we’re supposed to chew on Robinson’s Food for Thought about capital punishment at the climax. If nothing else, Lonely Hearts puts the strange achievement of The Honeymoon Killers into stark relief. That film, with its gritty, docudrama sense of time, made us feel the unconventional bond between the unglamorous killers, and the apathetic, helpless pathology of their murders. The violence in Lonely Hearts is prettily lingered over and weightless, and it invites us to giggle at colorful crime and femme fatales, but the only one who should really be giggling here is the casting director.