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by: Scott Renshaw

For a romantic drama, Random Hearts sure doesn't begin the way you would expect. The film eases us into the worlds of its two principal characters, Washington D.C. internal affairs cop William "Dutch" Van Den Broeck (Harrison Ford) and New Hampshire Congresswoman Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas). Their lives run parallel for nearly an hour of screen time, with Dutch investigating a pair of crooked cops and Kay preparing for a tough re-election campaign. Drifting through the background is the event that will bring them together: an airline crash that claims the lives of Dutch's wife Peyton (Susanna Thompson) and Kay's husband Cullen (Peter Coyote). With a languid silkiness, director Sydney Pollack lets the characters develop independently before Dutch's suspicion that Peyton and Cullen were having an affair sets Dutch and Kay on a collision course. The pacing may be slow, but the set-up is engrossing and effective.

Then, something horrible happens: Dutch and Kay actually get together.

To understand what's so dreadful about the romantic story in Random Hearts, you have to understand the laughter. After a day together in Miami exploring the possible scene of their spouses' infidelity, Dutch and Kay return home exchanging portentous glances throughout their plane trip. Finally, in Kay's car at the airport, they surrender to an angry, clumsy clinch ... and the audience starts howling. You could argue that they were responding to the awkwardness of the moment, but I'm not sure I'd buy it. In a matter of seconds, it was obvious that people weren't buying that relationship. In a matter of seconds, Random Hearts had plummeted to earth faster than the downed jet that brought Dutch and Kay together.

Doomed liaisons between wounded, grieving souls are nothing new in dramatic cinema -- case in point: Last Tango in Paris -- but such films generally focus on the essential emptiness at the center of the relationship. Random Hearts has too old-time-Hollywood a sensibility to delve into that kind of psychological pain. Scenes between Dutch and Kay keep suggesting the potential for genuine affection between them, something besides the mutual despair and betrayal that connected them in the first place. As a result, Random Hearts feels consistently and resolutely false as soon as they start to go at it in the front seat of Kay's car. Pollack and company keep trying to transplant the heart of a 1940's weeper into the body of a European art film.

It doesn't help that the story doesn't even make the best case for the base emotions that first link Dutch and Kay. On Dutch's side, it makes more sense, as the top trained to look for corruption feels like a fool when he discovers infidelity he never suspected for a moment. The transference of his anger at Kay's husband to sleeping with Kay works thematically; Kay is another matter entirely. She is almost unsurprised to learn of Cullen's philandering, her absence of shock and rage diminishing her motivation. Scott Thomas tries to wring some plausibility from Kay's actions, but it's hard to accept them as anything but plot machinations. When Harrison Ford -- looking a bit silly in his stud earring -- says to her, "I was thinking about your mouth," you have to believe Kay would have laughed in his face.

Of course people in Hollywood love stories are always saying ridiculously purple things to one another, and audiences roll with it all the time. It can only work, however, if the story is built on one of those sweeping archetypal premises in which soulmates are inspired to rhapsodic poetry. Random Hearts shouldn't have had the faintest whiff of soulmates to it, not when the hook is the visceral response of two people to an affair between their spouses. Pollack is too polished and professional a film-maker to produce an unwatchable product; he's also too polished and professio


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