Janeane Garofalo goes beyond her acerbic onscreen persona to create a much darker and more desperate character in "Sweethearts," a blind-date-from-hell drama that showcases the actress in outstanding fashion. Even so, the intensely intimate, ultimately heart-wrenching pic will need careful handling and critical kudos to attract ticketbuyers. To his credit, writer-director Aleks Horvat makes it clear right from the start that Garofalo is playing someone more troubled --- and, possibly, more dangerous --- than her usual sardonic wisecracker. As Jasmine, she is introduced as she checks her answering machine for responses to a personals ad. While she listens, she calmly loads a gun. Jasmine keeps the gun, and her true identity, carefully hidden as she waits in a coffee shop for her blind date.
When Arliss (Mitch Rouse) arrives, she engages the guy in a playful conversation, and mercilessly ribs him when he admits he’s hoping his date will be a blond, beautiful fantasy girl.
Jasmine goes too far, to the point of embarrassing Arliss in the eyes of another coffeehouse patron. So he is understandably reluctant to stick around when she admits she’s the woman he came to meet. Jasmine urges Arliss to stay, claiming that it’s her birthday and she doesn’t want to spend it alone. When that tactic fails, she pulls out the gun and demands that he stay with her. Arliss returns to his seat, but remains anxiously alert for any chance to escape.
By the time he does get that chance, however, Arliss comes to realize that Jasmine is feeling suicidal, not homicidal. During a long conversation that begins at their table and continues on the coffeehouse roof, Jasmine reveals she is a bipolar manic-depressive who has reached the end of her endurance. She plans to shoot herself at sunrise, at the exact anniversary of her birth. Before then, though, she wants to savor one last good time, preferably with a handsome companion.
Garofalo and Rouse develop a believably edgy and occasionally hilarious give-and-take, and Horvat provides them with some sharply clever dialogue. But for the most part, “Sweethearts” looks and feels like a filmed stage play. Indeed, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Marsha Norman’s ” ‘night, Mother.” And like that Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which consisted of a suicidal woman’s final conversation with her mother, it remains gripping primarily by keeping the audience in a state of dread.
Horvat strains credibility midway through the pic by having Arliss escape the coffeehouse, only to have second thoughts and return. (It’s no small credit to Rouse’s acting ability that the turnabout is persuasive.) Worse, the helmer springs a cheap trick on the audience by indulging in a violent fantasy sequence. Fortunately, it takes only a few minutes for the pic to recover from the latter gaffe.
Garofalo is funny and affecting in just the right measures. She is utterly convincing as a bright but self-loathing woman who has made the fateful decision to get off the bus a few stops early. That Jasmine seems to waver while warming to Arliss makes Garofalo’s portrayal all the more compelling. Rouse makes Arliss a sympathetic figure, showing how the character transcends his customary self-absorption, not to mention his mortal terror, to offer aid and encouragement. It’s not entirely his fault that efforts are too little, too late.
Margaret Cho is well cast as the boisterous, blunt-spoken manager of the coffeehouse. And while Bobcat Goldthwait comes on a bit strong as her dimwitted waiter, he never gets so out of hand as to be a serious distraction.
Thanks to Mimi Gramatky’s understated production design and John Peters’ moody cinematography, Horvat is able to keep the claustrophobic “Sweethearts” from seeming oppressive. Other tech credits are first-rate.