Common sense, not to mention plausibility, is not the strongest suit of “Love Cheat & Steal,” a desperate wannabe film noir that lacks the form’s crucial elements of suspenseful ambience and steamy sexuality. Still, proficient production values and decent performances by character actor John Lithgow and the attractive Madchen Amick may make this routine psychological thriller a time-killer for the video crowd that watches movies late at night, when their critical faculties are not quite sharp.
Tale begins with convicted murderer Reno (Eric Roberts) breaking out of prison with a mate (Richard Edson). Angry at being set up, and vengeful, Reno heads toward the mansion of his beautiful ex-wife, Lauren (Madchen Amick), who recently married wealthy financial consultant Paul (John Lithgow). Presenting himself to the surprisingly naive Paul as Lauren’s brother, Reno invades their house, threatening to destroy her new life if she won’t help him rob Paul’s bank — and consent to his sexual advances.
Trying to mix danger with desire and romance, this recycled saga centers on a trio of immoral characters who spend their time scheming, lusting, double-crossing and blackmailing — all to little emotional effect. The film’s cynical ending may be shocking but only somewhat decently earned.
In the first half-hour, scripter/helmer William Curran builds familiar but still pleasurable tension, and maintains the necessary calm and seductive surface of a good film noir. But an effective thriller needs more than formulaic characters, the occasional twist and a perverse undertone; it needs some design, shapeliness and logic, elements that are missing here. Fans of the time-honored genre would recognize almost every thematic trick and visual cliche in Curran’s handbook.
Roberts, who’s beginning to age and lose his rough sexual exterior, gives a monotonous performance as the betrayed husband. The usually reliable Lithgow doesn’t have a particularly interesting or plausible role, and as a result his work is just passable. Rising actress Amick (“Twin Peaks,””Dream Lover”), who would seem to possess the looks and talent it takes for stardom, comes across as unduly tough, lacking the electrifying presence that is so crucial to playing a femme fatale.
One wishes the level of plot and quality of writing would match the production’s technical prowess, as evidenced in Kent Wakeford’s polished lensing and Monte Hellman’s precise editing.