"Ayi em nyekid!"
Longtime Simpsons writer and executive producer David Mirkin’s predilection for wickedly witty cartoonishness is only slightly tempered in his live-action movies. Both Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and now, Heartbreakers, feature outrageously outfitted female protagonists who connive and pratfall their way through ridiculous romantic comedy plots, only to come to a realization that traditional values—say, happy heterosexual coupledom—are the key to fitting in with the rest of the world.
In Heartbreakers, the cost of fitting in is initially too much for both Max Conners (Sigourney Weaver) and her daughter Page (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Expert, longtime con artists, their basic scam is premised on the fact that Max refuses to conform to any expectations of good wifedom or patient femininity. She’s a go-getter and she’s also been angry for years, ever since her one true love left her pregnant and alone. Now all men are not to be trusted and deserve to suffer the vengeance she will wreak upon them (this is a story that she repeats often, much to Page’s visible dismay, she being the result of that pregnancy). In order to get where she wants, Max has perfected the art of looking like she fits in to whatever crowd she’s manipulating. This typically means she pretends to subscribe to conventional notions of commitment and family harmony.
Over the years, Max has trained Page to work with her, and now that the girl is filled out with all kinds of “dangerous curves” (as the film’s promotional poster terms them), she has become a most valuable asset. The usual scam runs something like this: Max marries a wealthy mark (preferably one whose money isn’t entirely legal, so he’s easily manipulated), and on the morning after a frustrating non-consummated wedding night, Page seduces the mark into a compromising position, so that, in the final step, the mark sheepishly coughs up a healthy divorce settlement as Max sits stoically at the lawyers’ table, sunglasses on and handkerchief at the ready.
Just as they complete a scam of this sort involving chop-shop-owner Dean (Ray Liotta), Page decides that she’s had enough. At 21, she feels ready to go out on her own. Upset at the impending loss of her partner and child, Max convinces her that they must make one more big score, and they head down to Palm Beach where the rich fish gather. There they decide to take an aging, chain-smoking tobacco tycoon, William Tensy (Gene Hackman), with terrible breath and worse teeth. Though Max is put off by such stomach-turning yuckiness, she comes up with yet another new persona, the Russian Ulga, who wears spectacular furs and speaks with a riotously bad accent: see especially, Ulga’s attempts to refuse Tensy access to her hotel room because, she wails, “Ayi em nyekid!” or to dazzle him with a bizarre, balalaika-accompanied rendition of “Back in the USSR” (which, in her pronunication, becomes “beck en de USSR”).
Meanwhile, Page is falling in love with someone, the incredibly laid-back, incredibly generous Jack (Jason Lee) who happens to be a millionaire himself. Of course, falling in love with a potential mark is exactly the wrong thing to do in her line of work, and so, conflicts arise, as mom attempts to set her straight, while ensuring that her own con with Tensy is on track (in this, Max must outsmart Tensy’s fiercely protective maid, crisply played by Nora Dunn). Max and Page’s friction entails some potentially touching mother-daughter moments, which the film is mostly smart enough to twist up as comedy.
Heartbreakers has a rudimentary feminist sensibility, in that the girls are strong and self-confident, and engage in the kind of broad, crazed, physical comedy that’s not often granted to girls. It’s not so grating as Romy and Michele, but is goony and pleasurable, and often very funny. As gifted as Hackman is, the Tensy scenes tend to be repetitive (hacking and wretching, hacking and wretching), but when Weaver is on screen—with Hackman, Hewitt, or Liotta—the film soars. Once again, she reveals that her sense of self and her sense of comedy are equally sublime.