Red-Hot Mama

Red-Hot Mama

Red-Hot Mama

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March 23 2001 3:00 AM

Red-Hot Mama

Sigourney Weaver vamps it up in Heartbreakers; more Farrelly antics in Say It Isn't So. 

Heartbreakers
Directed by David Mirkin
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Say It Isn't So
Directed by J.B. Rogers
20th Century Fox 

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Con-artist caper comedies are almost always piffle, but there's a fierce, cruel competition at the heart of Heartbreakers that gives it some bite. On the surface, the movie is a broad, slapstick-farce struggle between a jaded swindler, Max Conners (Sigourney Weaver), and her still faintly hopeful daughter, Page (Jennifer Love Hewitt), over the younger woman's right to plot her own course. The pair are partners in frauds of Mission: Impossible intricacy—Mom weds rich men; daughter seduces them; and the marriages end with fat settlements. You could almost take the film—with its gulled, impotent males—as a portrait of feminism at its most rapaciously self-sufficient.

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But that would ignore the subtext: the sexual rivalry between a bitter, aging woman who has gotten a lot of mileage out of her body and a pert, smooth twentysomething who's all too eager to take her mother's place. More important, it would ignore the sub-subtext, which flows beneath Heartbreakers like a river of lava. Here is a fiftyish, unconventionally attractive star who has never quite found her Hollywood niche forced to compete for screen time (and the audiences' affections) with an ingenuous teen queen in low-cut micro-minidresses. It's touch and go, but I'm thrilled to report that Sigourney holds her own. Lord, does that woman work it.

Weaver is rapidly becoming my favorite actress, and not because I think she's so brilliant a technician. She's no Vanessa Redgrave—the effort in her performances always shows. Actually, it's the effort that I respond to. Theater lore has it that in the early '70s she was overshadowed at the Yale School of Drama by classmate Meryl Streep. She evidently never got over it, and her subsequent career has had a come-from-behind quality. In some respects, Weaver had less to overcome than Streep did—she was tall and goddessy and from a wealthy, well-connected family. But her stature and pugilistic jaw line kept her from settling into pretty-and-demure roles, and she couldn't find a pad big enough to cover that chip on her shoulder. From the start, she has seemed to approach every role as if it's a prizefight—and she wins not with knockouts (that would be too easy) but on points.

In a way, Heartbreakers is Weaver's thrilla in Manila. Imagine having to show off your aging bod beside Little Miss Hewitt, who's introduced here via her butt and the backs of her firm thighs. Hewitt has a pleasant, uncomplicated presence, but I've always found her a little scary. She's what girls who read teen magazines want to look like: plush breasts atop willowy legs; doe eyes on a long, concave face. In still photos she often looks like a Halloween skeleton—but then, think of the standards to which she's held. (A woman I know made my jaw drop recently by referring to Hewitt in Heartbreakers as "a little hippy." Stop the madness!) I dwell on Hewitt's body-hugging outfits not out of prurience (well, not only out of prurience), but because the question "What tiny piece of cloth will she wear next?" lingers in the air. No wonder Weaver needed her own (sensational) costume designer (Ann Roth). You don't go into a ring like this without the best support team money can buy.

Weaver has an even bigger handicap—her part. Once upon a time, we're told, Max was impregnated and abandoned, and the woman we meet is sour and dried-up. Her goal is to keep her daughter safe from men, even from the sweetie-cutie bar-owner (Jason Lee), who we know from his first line could liberate Page from a life of deceit, loneliness, and perpetual flight. Max is so closed-down that in some of her early scenes I found Weaver hard to watch. What a loveless shrew. What an enemy of true love.

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But then comes Olga, the majestic Russian whom Max impersonates to seduce an elderly, emphysema-ridden Palm Beach tobacco billionaire (Gene Hackman)—and from the moment those chesty Slavic tones erupt from Weaver's mouth, Heartbreakers stops being another coarse con-game comedy and turns into a marvelous showcase for one of the best farceurs in the business. Watch her blanch when she inadvertently wins a bidding war at an art auction. Watch her "da" in incomprehension when greeted in her "native" tongue by a waiter. Watch, most of all, her attempt to vamp in Russian to an anthem she has never heard, and her segue to the most rousing rendition ever of "Back in the U.S.S.R." This is Weaver the super-nova of Christopher Durang cabarets—gorgeous, glittery-eyed, and titanically silly.

The director, David Mirkin, must love building pedestals to great comic actors. Hackman takes a wheezy vaudeville role and pushes it as far as he dares. With his age spots and yellow teeth and plum-colored proboscis, he looks like W.C. Fields about a month after death, and his bronchial spasms are plaster-crackers. (There's an epic anti-smoking motif.) As a former spouse who comes back for revenge, Ray Liotta is an unexpected joy. He's a strange actor—crudely macho but insolently feminine, with girlish eyeliner—and he might never have a role as menacingly evocative as his Ray in Something Wild (1986). But he throws himself into Heartbreakers with maniacal glee, and when the narrative sags in the last 20 minutes, he gives it a second wind. Maybe Weaver's relish is contagious—even Hewitt does a prim English housekeeper bit that's like a happy throwback to Patty Duke.

"A happy throwback to Patty Duke …" Man, can pretty girls get away with a lot.

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Co-produced by Peter and Bobby Farrelly and directed by their associate J.B. Rogers, Say It Isn't So is a middling gross-out comedy about a nice, cute guy (Chris Klein) who falls in love with a nice, cute girl (Heather Graham) and then discovers (after bedding her) that she's his sister. The plot gets a lot more complicated, and it's full of familiar Farrelly motifs: soulful geeks who embark on impoverished odysseys and face emasculating humiliations; sunny blond goddesses; likable characters who are physically or mentally handicapped; the inadvertent sexual violation of farm animals; and gags rooted equally in the Three Stooges and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I must admit that I find those motifs—and the Farrellys' universe in general—more sweet than offensive, and I liked Say It Isn't So just so. So there.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.