Crimes of the Heart November 18, 2022
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
ruce Beresford’s Crimes of the Heart (1986) has an inviting gimmick: Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange play siblings in it. The script, written by Beth Henley in an adaptation of her play, sometimes awkwardly overextends itself to hammer home, in a network sitcom move, how night-and-day-different these sisters are from each other in a ploy for easy laughs. It can get to the point that you’d think it would almost counteract any semblances of natural chemistry.
Spacek is a delicate Southern belle whose dizzy personality may lead her to impulsively shoot her husband and then offer him a glass of lemonade before calling the police. Keaton is a frustrated old maid prone to nagging her sisters like a bad-tempered grandmother. And Lange is a leonine wild woman who's been in an unsuccessful pursuit of fame since leaving her hometown. But despite the awkward overextending, this trio of actresses has no problem suggesting shared DNA. Most of the movie’s pleasures are related to their dynamic. Crimes of the Heart is at its best when most straightforwardly playing up their relationship at its most elemental: pawing through old scrapbooks wondering where the time went, arguing over exhumed old resentments, bonding over the family stories that still make them laugh.
But Crimes of the Heart never amounts to much more besides being a sometimes entertainingly kooky, sometimes wearying showcase through which these great performers can simulate sisterhood. The movie is set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and its plot is set into motion by the Spacek character, Babe, who’s been arrested for attempting to kill her husband. Keaton, who plays Lenny, has inherited the family home from their late mother; Meg (Lange) comes back to town so the three can weather the scandal under one roof. The sisters hope to find out that their sibling’s near-deadly transgression was just an act of self-defense. But though the wounded husband is certainly an asshole, she was the aggressor, shakily firing at him shortly after he told off a teenage boy she’s been sleeping with. (Disconcertingly, the suggestion is that Babe is too dim, too fundamentally childlike, to be anything resembling a predator, and it’s played for comedy in a way that may make you feel a little nauseous.)
The legal-trouble slant produces a few laughs. But it comes to feel like a distraction — an element thrown in because of a worry audiences wouldn’t be interested in a simple family-reunion dramedy. Crimes of the Heart is generally a good time for its first half. The giddiness of reunification (Meg’s been the kind of rarely-seen family member who can be depended on to opt out of holiday get-togethers) yields the resurgence of old, vagarious dynamics, and they mostly strike us as believable. In the family home these women practically devolve into their teenage selves, Lenny pissed anew, for instance, about how Meg got singing and dancing lessons growing up but not her and Babe. (Keeping her brand strong as someone practically feathery, Babe is pretty much indifferent amid all the worked-up bleating.)
But as it progresses Crimes of the Heart’s slapstick franticness reaches a tiresome breaking point. It all culminates in a too-tidy TV-movie ending. But the central three performances — plus some supporting work from a rugged Sam Shepard and practically squawking neighbor character Tess Harper — have a way of carrying Crimes of the Heart all the way through. Overbroad narrative beats stand mostly powerless against these actresses shining together with these amusing, grand-gestured performances. B-