Heartbreakers: David Mirkin’s Comedy, Starring Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love

The only contribution, and it’s a dubious one, that David Mirkin makes in his mildly amusing comedy, Heartbreakers, is to feminize con artists, a perennially male profession in American movies.

The regal Sigourney Weaver and the sexy Jennifer Love Hewitt play a consummate mother-daughter team of grifters who make an art out of the bamboozle.

A terrifically diverting Gene Hackman lends considerable support as their latest intended victim, an old big-tobacco heir.

As a follow-up to Mirkin’s exuberantly campy Romy and Michele’s High School Adventures, Heartbreakers is a rambling comedy, failing to fulfill its promise of a roguishly charming adventure. However, name cast, intriguing premise, and twisty plot should help MGM release position itself as a moderate B.O. player, with brighter results in post-theatrical life.

Narrative, co-scripted by Robert Dunn, Paul Guay, and Stephen Mazur, is onto a good start with a depiction of the foolproof system developed by the femme duo: Max (Weaver) seduces a rich man and gets him to marry her, while daughter Page (Hewitt) takes second billing as the secretary who lures him into an uncompromising position the day after the blessed event, which leads to a divorce settlement. First victim is Dean Cummano (Ray Liotta), a chop shop entrepreneur who marries Max and then out of frustration of a sexless wedding night gets trapped by his new wife, when her daughter is about to give him a blow job. Each time, the stakes get higher, though Page is getting tired of the games and their lifestyle.

Trying to humanize the central scoundrels, the scripters construct Max as a woman who, while the more experienced and more hardened of the pair, deep down is a compassionate mother holding Page as close to her as possible. For her part, Page is a budding young grifter, anxious to prove herself and break free of her mother’s clutches. Their love-hate, endlessly bickering relationship is brought to an extreme in scenes in which mother and daughter compete for the attention of the same rich men.

Strong and disciplined, but still bitter from an early marriage and broken heart, Max perceives falling in love as the absolute worst thing that could happen to her daughter. Sure enough, Page falls in love with Jack (Jason Lee), a guileless bartender, who turns out to be richer than expected. Unbeknownst to Jack, he’s being conned by the women, though inadvertently he complicates their schemes in some hilarious ways.

Hackman’s appearance in the film’s second half brings much needed humor, though his sequences, like the rest of the film, are draggy and overextend their welcome. Even so, Hackman excels as a single billionaire, who’s being preyed upon by the duo, yet pretty much remains oblivious to what their real motives are. In these acts, Weaver sports a heavy, unconvincing Russian accent, which makes the artifice even more tedious.

In aim and style, Heartbreakers wants to belong to the same league of The Sting, the Oscar-winning Depression-set comedy about big-time cardsharps and swindlers. Indeed, it’s easy to draw parallels between the two yarns, with Weaver in the Paul Newman role, an old-pro trickster out of retirement for one last score, Hewitt in Robert Redford’s, as a novice with a heart, and Liotta in Robert Shaw’s role, as the stiff-necked menace. But while Mirkin’s picture is as mechanical as The Sting was, it unfortunately lacks the star appeal, effortless charm, and music (Scott Joplin’s piano rags) of the 1973 blockbuster.

As if to correct the problem of The Sting, in which the absence of women was very much felt, Heartbreaks at least introduces three strong men, played by interesting actors like Liotta, Hackman, and Lee. Heartbreakers, like The Sting, wants to play it both ways, first titillating the audience with immoral crooks, then turning them into softer and more humane creatures, but the effort show.

Like other classic screwball comedies, Heartbreakers tries to mix visual and verbal slapsticks, high artifice and pratfalls, but the end result is decidedly uneven. The film feels like a coldly calculated conceit, an obvious attempt to take archaic screen cons and update them to fit the zeitgeist of the new millennium. It’s as if the filmmakers asked themselves, what would con artists do to get free gasoline now a days How would they score a free hotel suite or a meal in a luxury restaurant. A surprising scene with Anne Bancrfot, who masquerades as an IRS examiner but is actually the mentor of all cons, reveals the aforementioned secrets.

Yarn unfolds as a string of TV episodes, each with its own cliffhanger, which is not surprising since Mirkin has previously fashioned the popular TV show, The Simpsons. The viewers are asked to wait around patiently to see what the dirty rotten scoundrels would do next.

Watching Weaver’s and Hewitt’s shenanigans recall another female con artist, Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Preston Sturges’s 1941 masterpiece, in which she played a cardsharp who falls for an innocent millionaire scientist (played by Henry Fonda) initially more intrigued by snakes than women. Regrettably, neither Weaver nor Hewitt have Stanwyck’s shapely legs or her ease in delivering witty lines.

If you really want to watch a modern classic about con artists, you should revisit Stephen Frears’ delicious The Grifters, a tightly focused tale about a mother, her son, and his new threatening lover (played by Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening), who, like the characters of Heartbreakers, couldn’t separate their private from their professional lives.