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Crooked Hearts

Crooked Hearts
Sony -MGM
1991 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 112 min. / Street Date December 13, 2005 / 14.94
Starring Peter Berg, Vincent D'Onofrio, Noah Wyle, Peter Coyote, Cindy Pickett, Juliette Lewis, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Cinematography Tak Fujimoto
Production Designer David Brisbin
Art Direction Lawrence F. Pevec
Film Editor Richard Francis-Bruce
Original Music Mark Isham
Written by Michael Bortman from a novel by Robert Boswell
Produced by Gil Friesen, Dale Pollock, Rick Stevenson
Directed by Michael Bortman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

After Ordinary People the movies rediscovered family disharmony as a main theme - in the Reagan years, interestingly - and a spate of films grew around a new catchphrase: The dysfunctional family. Michael Bortman's Crooked Hearts is an extreme example that stays interesting in the same way an auto wreck does - the lives of the players are a disaster, but one can't help turning to look. The movie is about a family with internal rot far too bland for tragedy but just creepy enough to be believable. The general spinelessness at the Warren household is frustrating - we care about these people but have a hard time buying into their defeatist philosophy.

Acted by a talented ensemble, Crooked Hearts may be the perfect antidote for viewers unimpressed by movies about nice things happening to nice people. It's well-written and reasonably well directed by Michael Bortman.


The curious Warren family has a perverse habit of celebrating failure, as they do when son Tom (Peter Berg) comes home from Berkeley just a few weeks before finals. Younger brother Ask (Noah Wyle) is an optimistic fellow but older brother Charley (Vincent D'Onofrio) is a troubled malcontent, always bitter at his father Edward (Peter Coyote) over some unspoken grievance. Mother Jill (Cindy Pickett) encourages Charley to just leave, but Edward insists on keeping the family "together" even though something is rotten within. Younger sister Cassie (Juliette Lewis) reacts to the secrecy by falling asleep whenever possible - she's a borderline narcoleptic.

The Warren family is introduced as pleasant and fairly cool - and then without a bit of irony or dissent from other family members, the father Edward makes a ritual toast to Tom's 11th hour abandonment of college, "Pulling defeat from the jaws of victory." The movie becomes a chain of disappointments large and small, all of which lead back to the 'original sin' of the father. Some offspring can't forgive him and others prefer to ignore the problem and turn their disenchantment inward. The wife keeps saying that the solution is to throw the troublemaking Charley out of the house, when she's actually in denial of the seriousness of the situation. Everybody loves each other and the family is harmonious in general - but there's something rotten in the stew.

The best thing about Crooked Hearts is the cast. Vincent D'Onofrio and Noah Wyle have gone on to bigger careers (Wylie happens to be rather hot at the moment, I believe) while others are mostly treading water. Juliette Lewis is certainly big news from Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers, and Peter Berg was in Collateral a couple of years back. They blend well in a script that's just a bit too calculated. Charley makes an honest attempt to leave home like he knows he should, but an odd coincidence forces him to come back. Sexual betrayals tend to criss-cross family lines -- Tom crashed out of Berkeley because his girlfriend Eileen (Wendy Gazelle) got pregnant and married someone else. The real father of the baby is closer to home.

Discussing any of the main twists in the story would be a bad spoiler, so I'll tread lightly. Crooked Hearts goes in a great direction when it appears to steer a theraputic course. Good guy main character Tom starts going out with Marriett, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, adding yet another eccentric characterization to her résumé. Marriet has also recently come home, from a disastrous attempt at independent living in Los Angeles. As an emotionally wounded bird she fits in perfectly with the angst-ridden Warren household.

The final act of the movie puts the Warrens into a real tailspin. They're forced to move into a little apartment with just the clothes on their backs. More tragedy follows in an accident that unfortunately seems to be motivated only by the screenwriter's desire to make things more miserable than they already are. The final family wrap-up has the survivors talking about the necessity of being honest and frank, but the situation is beyond repair - everyone's still stressing that the ultimate solution is sticking together "as a family."  1

Making a big impression in an opening flashback is the wonderful Marg Helgenberger. Her character throws the film off-balance because we keep expecting her to return.

Sony / MGM's Crooked Hearts looks great on DVD with an enhanced transfer that flatters Tak Fujimoto's rich cinematography. The picture is pleasing, even when the characters emote in featureless unfurnished apartments. A clear audio track highlights the lively choice of source music cues, which fortunately do not get out of hand as they did with Orion's Mermaids of the same year. That potentially good movie was ruined by star egos and too many pop songs crammed into the post-production; Crooked Hearts is a tiny movie that got ignored because MGM was in transition between owners ... sort of where it is right now. Free Leo!

There are no extras, not even Josh Stallings' excellent trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Crooked Hearts rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Crooked Nothing
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: Crooked December 7th, 2005


1. Spoiler like you wouldn't believe: Crooked Hearts' biggest shock is when (SPOILER) Charley takes his revenge on his father by burning down the family house. As apt as this may seem in literary terms, it knocks most viewers clean out of the movie. About ten years earlier Brooke Shields' career was set back by the failure of Franco Zefferelli's Endless Love. It flopped, Savant believes, because the looney boyfriend character in the film expresses his upset by burning down his girlfriend's home. Not only was 1981 an economically depressed time, but a lot of young Americans were beginning to realize that even with two jobs, they may never be able to afford to have a house of their own, something that was taken for granted from the early baby boom post-war years up through the Vietnam era. The sight of someone purposely burning down a beautiful, desirable family house hit viewers as a subconscious trauma (Savant's opinion). I chalk the same phenomenon up as the reason why the ending of 1941 fell flat -- no matter how it was shot, the spectacle of a beautiful house splattered across a beach was no longer funny.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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