The post-feminist con

Smokin’ Gene Hackman, Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt: Uh, what kind of danger are we talking about?

Smokin’ Gene Hackman, Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt: Uh, what kind of danger are we talking about?

Rated 3.0

I’ve always had a soft spot when it comes to movies about con games, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. In a sense, films like The Sting and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are movie fantasy in its purest and most appealing form. These films don’t show unsuspecting senior citizens being bilked of their life savings or devout Bible Belt farmers turning over their worldly goods to some passing evangelical huckster. Movie con artists almost always earn their livelihood by exploiting the greed or vanity of their marks. The con game becomes poetic justice, an illustration that a fool and his money are soon parted and you can’t cheat an honest man. A variation on the theme is when the mark turns out to be just another con artist running a game on the con-man hero. Even then, all’s right with the world; greed is being punished, and we Honest Johns in the audience are comforted with the thought that, in movies at least, confidence tricksters, like gangsters, only cheat each other.

Heartbreakers gives the formula a nifty post-feminist twist. What Maxine (Sigourney Weaver) and her daughter Page (Jennifer Love Hewitt) are cashing in on isn’t the mark’s greed but his libido and male ego. They’re in the middle of a game as the movie opens. Max has just married Dea Cumanno (Ray Liotta), a chop-shop operator. (See? He’s already crooked and fair game.) On their wedding night, Maxine works Dean up into a horny lather, then apparently passes out. The next day, frustrated and unsatisfied, Dean makes a play for the obliging secretary at his office, who is only too obliging.

The secretary, of course, is Page working undercover. In comes Maxine to catch them in the act. A quick whirl with a divorce attorney, and Max and Page are on the road $300,000 richer.

For their next job the two head to Palm Springs, where their new mark is William B. Tensy (Gene Hackman), a chain-smoking tobacco billionaire. Tensy is a real challenge, not because he’s tough to con but simply because he’s so repulsive: blotchy, foul-smelling, with liver spots the size of Australia, a festering red nose and dingy brown teeth. The plus side is that, if their timing is right, Max and Page may not have to run the divorce ploy; Tensy could drop dead right after the ceremony. “That means widow money,” grins Max.

The monkey wrench comes when Page, whose heart isn’t in the scam to begin with, meets Jack (Jason Lee), a local bar owner. Page tells herself that her interest is purely mercenary: after all, Jack’s bar is on a valuable piece of real estate and he’s been offered millions for it. But we know better. Page is falling in love.

The script is, to put it gently, careless and slapdash. There are three writers listed—Robert Dunn, Paul Guay, Stephen Mazur—but their screen credit has the tell-tale Writer’s Guild juxtaposition of “and” and “ampersand” that indicates the three were probably working at cross purposes and may not even have met. This is a real drawback in a genre that depends on tight, clever writing and unexpected twists. Heartbreakers telegraphs its “surprise” twists far in advance, forfeiting one of the pleasures of movies like this: the sudden discovery that we in the audience have been conned as much as (or more than) the on-screen mark.

The film gets by on star power, particularly on Sigourney Weaver’s amazing flair for comedy. Anyone with cheekbones can do the tight-lipped tough woman routine, but to be funny takes real talent. And casting Jennifer Love Hewitt as her daughter was a real inspiration. They have the same cheeks and neckline, of course, but they also have the same swagger, the same sardonic glint in the eye. Yet give them a couple of decent wigs and the resemblance goes south and they make credible strangers.

Gene Hackman never looked worse (if I hadn’t just seen him in The Mexican as healthy and dapper as ever I’d be afraid for his life) and his hilarious performance is, I guess, Hollywood’s way of atoning for all those years when they made smoking look glamorous.