The general public that demonstrated its tolerant indifference to agonizing over adultery re “Eyes Wide Shut,” not to mention the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, will get a chance to do so again with “Random Hearts.” An ideal rainy-day matinee attraction for well-to-do ladies of a certain age, Sydney Pollack’s immaculately crafted anachronism hearkens back, in its relative restraint and civility, to the likes of “Brief Encounter.” Harrison Ford’s drawing power will no doubt generate a measure of initial B.O., but pic’s somber sobriety and deliberate pace, combined with an utter lack of allure for anyone under about 40, spells a short theatrical visit for such a major star-director vehicle.
In fact, the story, based on a 1984 novel by Warren Adler, is about the retroactive discovery of adultery, but it’s a realization that haunts the protagonists throughout the film’s protracted running time. The reluctant but eventual lovers are the opposite of star-crossed, two people uncomfortably thrust together solely because their respective spouses are killed in a plane crash on their way to an illicit rendezvous. Carefully decked out with detailed exposition, yarn takes 45 minutes to bring its leading characters together. Sgt. Dutch Van Den Broeck (Ford), of the Internal Affairs division of the Washington, D.C., police force, lives in exceedingly pleasant suburban comfort with a beautiful wife who, on the fateful day, initiates some morning hanky-panky before they each head for work. When Dutch hears of the crash of a Miami-bound airliner into Chesapeake Bay, he thinks nothing of it. Similarly, Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas), a patrician congresswoman from New Hampshire, has no idea that her husband was headed for Florida, believing that he was flying to New York. In scenes that reveal far more than any viewer will ever want to learn firsthand about how airlines deal with the aftermath of a catastrophe, Dutch and Kay react very differently to the news of their spouses’ deaths: Dutch with deep grief cut through with quickly growing certainty that his wife was having an affair, Kay with emotional denial and the pragmatic calculation of a born politician. Intent upon learning the full truth as a way of absorbing and eventually coming to terms with his loss, Dutch hits a brick wall in his initial approaches to Kay, who finds that her tragedy appears to be helping her bid for reelection. But when Kay joins Dutch in a quick visit to Miami to observe the seductive setting for what they’ve learned was a long-term affair between their mutual mates, the media picks up the scent, spelling PR trouble for Kay. “Sooner or later, everybody knows everything,” Dutch gravely, and rather truthfully, warns Kay before they lunge at each other in a car in an assaultively amorous physical display that is both convincingly urgent as an explosion of pent-up feeling and borderline embarrassing in its abruptness and desperation.
Concerned about how the news and inevitable media storm will affect her teenage daughter (an appealingly mature and nuanced Kate Mara), Kay vacillates about continuing her election campaign, as well as about deepening her involvement with her earnest policeman, who has become professionally preoccupied with some rather murky and dramatically lame goings-on with the force’s undercover cops in the inner city. This being the ’90s, the dual climaxes involve sex and then gunplay, the former handled in a plausibly understated way, the latter in a manner melodramatically out of keeping with the rest of the drama. As written by frequent Pollack collaborator Kurt Luedtke (“adaptation” is credited to Darryl Ponicsan), it’s all very adult, very serious and very legitimate in regard to honestly projecting responses to the adverse circumstances the characters have to deal with. In its reserved way, the film also seems deeply felt in the manner it keeps thrashing through the correct responses to the situation.
But it’s also laborious, remote and strangely uninvolving for the audience, despite the fact that sudden personal loss is something everyone can fear and presumably identify with. There is a hushed quality to the enterprise, a sensitivity that feels more intellectual than emotional, an effort to withhold that is meant ultimately to pay off in a surge of feeling that never happens. This impression is reinforced by the lead performances. Much in the manner of Pollack’s longtime leading man Robert Redford, an ear-studded Ford keeps an iron grip on what his heart is going through, delivering all his lines with a flat stoicism through which deep emotion is meant gradually to seep. Ford knows what he’s doing in this regard, but it doesn’t really work this time. Redford’s most recent leading lady, Scott Thomas, sporting an American accent, is aggravatingly, and intentionally, off-putting through the early going, and while she softens nicely in the intimate interludes, it isn’t enough. Final airport scene between the two crucially lacks the intended poignant resonance.
Pic’s impeccable craftsmanship offers its own rewards. Philippe Rousselot’s pastel-dominated cinematography is beautifully shaded, the Eastern seaboard locations are evocatively diverse, Barbara Ling’s production design pinpoints the characters’ milieu with precision, and Dave Grusin’s attractive jazz score is conducive to emotional contemplation. Supporting turns are vivid but limited, with the director giving himself a good role as Kay’s often exasperated media consultant.