"Heartbreak Hospital" tries to combine romantic comedy, soap-opera parody and murder mystery, but the disparate elements never gel, and the film, about homicide at a daytime television serial, bounces around with no clue of how to reconcile or intertwine its genre conventions.

“Heartbreak Hospital” tries to combine romantic comedy, soap-opera parody and murder mystery, but the disparate elements never gel, and the film, about homicide at a daytime television serial, bounces around with no clue of how to reconcile or intertwine its genre conventions. Despite some good sexual chemistry between quirky young romantic leads, the clumsy “Nurse Betty”-derived handling of the soap plot and cavalier disregard for script’s whodunit setup blur pic’s intent. “Hospital,” which opened in New York’s Screening Room and is skedded for a Sept. 13 L.A. release, looks likely to languish at the box office.

Pic’s central character, Neely (Chelsea Altman), is an actress. A quick succession of absurd auditions (much better rendered by Sally Kirkland in “Anna”) establishes that, despite her obvious talent, her career is going nowhere. She’s madly in love with Tonio (Damian Bichir), an aspiring chef who returns her affection, and the pair decide to get married and move to Mexico. But one last audition lands Neely a seemingly short-lived role as a coma patient on the titular soap, and the part unexpectedly takes off. Inevitably, as her fame and fortune wax, her love and commitment to Tonio wane.

Meanwhile, on the “HH” set, high-octane egos rage unchecked — actors plot against each other in pale imitation of the free-for-all melodramatics of “Soapdish,” and the over-the-hill reigning diva (Diane Venora) chases her enemies with an ax. A dotty next-door neighbor (Patricia Clarkson as a madder, middle-aged version of Renee Zellweger’s delusional soap fan Betty), obsessed by the show’s male lead, goes postal, determined to eliminate all who stand in her way of marriage to her idol (John Shea). The diva is killed, Tonio is briefly suspected, the actual murderer is unveiled, and Neely finally realizes her true priorities, all with little tension and less suspense.

“Heartbreak” was co-scripted and based on a 1993 novel by Henry Slesar, veteran mystery writer with numerous “Alfred Hitchock Presents” installments to his credit. Even more significantly, Slesar was guiding light of the legendary, now-defunct sudser “Edge of Night,” which successfully wedded crime fiction with episodic daytime drama. Considering Slesar’s pedigree, one would expect pic to mesh diverse ingredients with flair. But tyro Swiss helmer and co-scripter Ruedi Gerber plays up condescension and largely unfunny exaggeration on the soap front; with the exception of a few marvelously self-reflective purple exchanges between Venora and Shea, pic makes no real attempt to capture the look or feel of a daytime drama. Similarly, on the whodunit front, Gerber drops the story’s “everyone’s a suspect” premise prematurely. The supposedly parallel developments of film’s three main strands never meaningfully connect — Neely and Tonio are reconciled well before he’s arrested, the two move to another apartment before their ex-neighbor has a chance to go off the deep end, and no one seems to give a damn who killed the diva.

Gerber pulls off the romantic comedy sequences with a certain grace, aided greatly by playful thesping of Mexican heartthrob Bichir. Altman’s Neely has a breezy appeal that keeps the home fires burning charmingly in scenes with Bichir but is too lightweight to carry the rest of film’s unwieldy plotting. John Shea’s way-over-the-top perf as an aging daytime hunk swings too peremptorily between swish and swash, but Venora hints well at the woman beneath her character’s bitch-on-wheels affects.

Tech credits are unremarkable.

Heartbreak Hospital

Production

A Bergman Lustig Prods., Goldheart Pictures, ZAS Films production. Produced by Ram Bergman, Lemore Syvan, Ruedi Gerber, Dana Lustig. Directed by Ruedi Gerber. Screenplay by Gerber, Henry Slesar, based on a novel by Slesar.

Crew

Camera (color), Wolfgang Held; editor, Sabine Krayenbuhl; music, John Davis; art director, Shawn Caroll; sound, Tammy Douglass. Reviewed at the Screening Room, New York, Sept. 6, 2002. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Neely - Chelsea Altman Lottie - Patricia Clarkson Sunday - Diane Venora Milo - John Shea Tonio - Demian Bichir
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