What Can We Steal From David Mirkin’s film Heartbreakers?

Title of Work and its Form: Heartbreakers
Author: Written by Robert Dunn and Paul Guay & Stephen Masur, Directed by David Mirkin
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and can also currently be viewed on many video streaming services.  You’ll be thrilled to know that Heartbreakers was released on VHS.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
In Heartbreakers, Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt play a mother/daughter team of grifters who run a simple con: Weaver gets a man to marry her so Hewitt can lure the husband into a compromising position.  Thanks to community property laws, the mother gets a juicy settlement in the divorce.  What could foul up the arrangement?  Falling in love.  What do you think happens in the course of the movie?  They both fall in love and this forces them to question the ethics of their scam and blah blah blah.  The plot of the film is as predictable as it is comforting.  And the movie isn’t all that bad.  The ensemble is good, the clothing is attractive and South Florida looks beautiful.

This is clearly a con artist movie in the tradition of Paper Moon and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  The screenwriters needed to make sure their plot had lots of surprises while keeping those surprises organic.  Think of it this way: it’s not a surprise if Jean-Luc Picard shoots someone with a futuristic laser gun.  It’s a huge surprise if the characters in Downton Abbey solve a problem by shooting at each other with futuristic laser guns.  When you’re telling a story, the reveal of a plot twist must be organic and believable, or else your audience will be freed from the spell you are trying to cast.

Oh, these are obviously spoilers.  But the movie is a decade old, so it’s okay.  I’m going to examine two of the film’s many twists to see what we can steal (or not steal) from the film’s screenwriters.

  • BACKGROUND FOR TWIST 1: The whole conceit of the movie (it falls around the fifteen-minute mark, of course) is that mother and daughter need to make a bunch of money to pay the IRS back taxes from their previous grifts.  (The IRS Agent is played by Anne Bancroft.)  Jennifer Love Hewitt worries!  How will they make that much money?  She agrees, reluctantly, to stay with her mother for one last Big Score.
  • BACKGROUND FOR TWIST 2: Weaver begins the film by conning Ray Liotta out of…the amount doesn’t matter.  A bunch of money.   Ray Liotta runs a chop shop of dubious legality and is an easy mark; guys like him don’t like to get cops involved.

The screenwriters had a lot of choices.  We don’t HAVE to see Anne Bancroft again.  (Even though she’s the best.)  We don’t HAVE to see Ray Liotta again.  But the screenwriters made the perfectly legitimate choice to keep the characters involved in the narrative.  This requires, Dear Reader, an explanation for their actions that is both organic and emotionally valid.  I submit that the screenwriters did not accomplish this goal in a manner that is organic or emotionally valid.  (Especially in the case of Ray Liotta’s character.)

After the Liotta con, the film is centered in Florida.  We see mother and daughter con their way into a sweet hotel suite and choose their next target.  Then a one-minute scene is cut-and-pasted into the film.  Ray Liotta is sad!  His employee notes that he’s smashed twelve picture frames because he’s been staring at his wedding picture non-stop for…who knows?  The passage of time isn’t clear.  Liotta has a plan: he’s going to get Weaver back.  No matter what.  And then we don’t see him again for an hour.  That’s the problem.  If Liotta is going to be a meaningful part of the narrative, he can’t ONLY be around when the writers need him.  Yes, his motivations were made clear, but this plot element isn’t organic, as we don’t spend enough time with him.  David Mirkin proved himself a comedy specialist with work on The Simpsons and Get a Life and he does able work in this film.  The movie is already two hours long, so he really COULDN’T add several scenes in order to weave Liotta into the film more felicitously.

There’s another brief EXPOSITION ALERT scene in which Weaver has lunch with…oh my goodness!  It’s Anne Bancroft!  And it turns out that Anne Bancroft was Sigourney Weaver’s mentor, called in to give Jennifer Love Hewitt a reason not to strike out on her own!  Again, after the brief scene, we don’t see Anne Bancroft until the very end, although she is mentioned during another plot twist.

What Should We Steal?

  • Surprises must be inserted into the plot in an organic manner.  We must believe the twists and turns within the context of the story.  If Ray Liotta really wanted Sigourney Weaver back (and who could blame him) then the audience must see some of his struggle.  We can’t just be TOLD that he’s dedicated to finding her.
  • Each surprise in your story must also be resolved in a logical manner.  Unsurprisingly, Gene Hackman’s character dies while he’s trying to make love to Sigourney Weaver.  A nice chunk of screen time is devoted to transporting the body and staging the body so as to make it look as if he died alone…and we never hear about it again.  No one investigated his death and the post-mortem damage to the corpse?  No one interviews the girlfriend?  The film is supposed to be set in the “real world.”  In the real world, the police ask questions and stuff.
  • The focus must be on the story that you really wish to tell.  It’s great when a con artist story features unrepentant grifters who don’t magically find morality.  But I don’t mind one in which they do.  (Heartbreakers, of course, is the latter.)  Instead of focusing on the emotional transformation of the women—which was clearly the writers’ focus—the film spends an awful lot of unnecessary time showing us the Gene Hackman con.  While we love Gene Hackman, we don’t care as much about him as we do the emotional foci of the story.

 

BONUS LIFE ADVICE YOU CAN STEAL: Don’t bring your young children to the 10 p.m. showing of a grownup movie.  I saw the film in the theater with an ex-girlfriend.  Some folks decided to bring their children, who proceeded to run around the theater and talk to us during the show.  Don’t worry; I didn’t blame the children.  They were acting like children.

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