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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

Sweet Hearts Dance


Sweet Hearts Dance
Columbia TriStar
1988 / Color / flat pan'n scan / 101 min.
Starring Don Johnson, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Daniels, Elizabeth Perkins, Kate Reid, Justin Henry
Cinematography Tak Fujimoto
Production Designer James Allen
Art Direction
Film Editors Robert Florio, Janet Bartels-Vandagriff
Original Music Richard Gibbs
Written by Ernest Thompson
Produced by Robert Greenwald, Lauren Weissman, and Jeffrey Lurie
Directed by Robert Greenwald

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An interesting cast struggles with an unusually insensitive script in what should have been a winner of a romantic drama. Four friends. One marriage faltering. One relationship tentative. With little else to concentrate on, you'd think there'd be some insightful scenes or emotional highlights. But what we get are two very likeable couples in a story that frustrates more than it charms.

Synopsis:

In a small Vermont town, over the course of a Fall and Winter, two couples merge and separate. The Boons break up when Wiley (Don Johnson) becomes disenchanted. He moves out after an altercation at the family Thanksgiving dinner. His wife Sandra (Susan Sarandon) responds to Wiley's inarticulate hostility with resentments of her own, and the winter is spent in cruel sniping, infidelity, and family unhappiness, especially with teenage son Kyle (Justin Henry).

Best friend Sam Manners (Jeff Daniels) tries to intervene, without much luck. A batchelor and high school principal, he falls in love with teacher Adie Nims (Elizabeth Perkins), a proud woman who becomes impatient with Sam's reticence and lack of decisiveness. They also part after a fumbled proposal, but it's a separation that won't last long.

If this review has a grudge against this film's screenwriter, Ernest Thompson, it's intentional. I was offended by On Golden Pond, a paper-thin confection animated only by its stars. For real ideas it was nil, and the best it could do for creativity was to bring in revolting 'hip' talk like the term 'suck face' to intimidate the audience.

Sweet Hearts Dance is lazy, unfocused, and artificial. Once again we have two couples in love in a Hallmark Cards vision of a small town. Besides some worry about getting a gymnasium completed, there's no connection with economic reality. The actors try to make the characters seem complicated, but nothing like identifiable reality seeps through. The two relationship pairs here live in a kind of vacuum that Ernest Thompson fills up with personal problems that are absolutely depthless. Don Johnson, Savant's idea of a weak actor, is actually very good as the spouse who wonders why he's not happy. But we aren't given much of a clue to his breakup besides that cloudy bugaboo of 'marital malaise'. Since both he and Susan Sarandon's character are both lively types with great warmth and humor, it doesn't make sense that one of them wouldn't be able to shake the other out of the destructive cycle. In other words, they're too perfect. Instead of being individuals, they're written as extensions of the author's psyche.

When the ice finally breaks, it's through stupid unsexy sex shenanigans on vacation in the Caribbean. Sarandon suddenly and unaccountably wants to jump into bed with the Daniels character, completely trashing her credibility as a dramatic creation. Their problems don't seem to be about sex but about vaguely unfulfilled dreams, etc. It's not only lazy, it's insulting to try to goose up the drama by having Sarandon strip for Johnson and pull the, 'Here's my body, don't you want me?' baloney. Sweet Hearts Dance sells itself as sensitive, but is lazy and without insight. Again, the actors are so charming - Susan Sarandon is almost always compelling - that it's easy to take this dramatic oatmeal for most of the running time.

The Jeff Daniels - Elizabeth Perkins romance is better, but muted. They have a career clash that's somewhat credible: he wouldn't hire her for the 'big' school because he thought she lacked experience, and her resentment of that becomes an unstated feeling of being sexually dominated. A bit thick, but sincere, the Daniels character has the movie's one original scene, when he stops the Boons from arguing by bringing forth his high school principal detention-room persona. It's very funny. Otherwise the Daniels - Perkins affair just meanders and marks time, and develops a hitch just in time to provide some drama. Elizabeth resents Jeff's male authoritarianism, but has no trouble with him sneaking into her window in the dead of night. Perhaps her completely undeveloped resentment of this petty domination is realistic, but it's not very well expressed, explained or explored. She just seems mixed up and unreadable, like the other three. The show is too blah to be good drama and too upscale phony to be naturalistic.

Daniels is reasonably charming, and Elizabeth Perkins is a gem whose repeated attempts to find her public as a star finally collapsed in Flintstones movies. I dearly love her in Love at Large; you might remember her as Tom Hanks' love interest in Big. In good support are Justin Henry as the upset son - he's the great kid from Kramer vs Kramer a decade later; and the always good but infrequently seen Kate Reid as Daniels' sweet mother. You'll remember her from The Andromeda Strain almost twenty years before.

The single most annoying thing (I guess I'm admitting there are several) about Sweet Hearts Dance is the structure, which is laid out as a series of postcard views of the Vermont town, each labeled by subject (Thanksgiving, Halloween, etc). The episodes break up the drama in a very artificial way, and each has the uncanny knack of starting with the worst piece of obvious music you can imagine. Indeed, the score for this show consists of rearranged '50s rock 'n roll hits that have nothing to do with the people involved (they're too young to connect with them directly anyway) and just make the movie seem more out of touch.

But the script is the real culprit. It's undeveloped, obvious, and ultimately pointless. The message, after 100 minutes of hostility, is that people get together and stay together because they're magically made for each other. Sexual attraction solves problems, instead of complicating them. And no matter what happens, we all live in a beautiful Vermont hamlet. The story has little connection with its own characters. The (very Ernest Thompson) gimmick of Daniels' sports car being tossed in the pond as some kind of existential ritual, comes off as a cheap attempt to be hip & wacky - bland Yuppie hijinks of the worst kind.  1


Columbia TriStar's DVD of Sweet Heart's Dance is greatly compromised by a pretty transfer that has been presented only flat - and pan'n scanned to boot. People are crowded onto the frame, and wide compositions leave big empty spaces in the middle. Is this the future of DVD - a fast slide back to the dumbed-down, non-theatrical experience of VHS? To add insult to injury, the packaging proudly says this is a Hi-Def transfer.

In this case, it might not be Columbia's fault - their scary policy of doing flat-only versions of movies is mostly limited to older library titles. Newer shows like this aren't always owned outright by the studio. I groused once to my Columbia connection about an okay comedy called Princess Caraboo, which also was Pan'n scanned. I was told that it was an outside acquisition, and that transfer was all the owners would allow to be created. So maybe that's the story here.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sweet Hearts Dance rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Poor - a killer pan'n scan ruins a nice transfer - this isn't DVD, folks.
Sound:Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 20, 2002


Footnote:

1. Why such a negative review from Savant, who normally doesn't do that? I was just expecting a much, much better film. Every once in a while you just have to let loose, and this is my existential ritual. Sweet Hearts Dance promises much and delivers almost nothing.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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