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Mother-daughter team turns on the charm in 'Heartbreakers'

Friday, March 23, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

The last thing a sexy professional female con artist wants is fierce competition from an equally sexy operator plying the same trade in the same rich-male territory. Actually, that's the next-to-last thing. It would be even worse if the competitor were her own not-so-little girl.


RATING: PG-13 for sex-related content and dialogue

STARRING: Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Gene Hackman

DIRECTOR: David Mirkin




Like mother, like daughter in "Heartbreakers," where Max (Sigourney Weaver) and Page (Jennifer Love Hewitt) have honed their charm-and-swindle scams into an art less fine but more lucrative than poetry, with a reliable influx of settlement money from a string of reliably stupid men. How easily is a wealthy masculine sap smitten.

Page's own sap is rising. She has more in-your-face attitude than Eminem. Now that her hormones and her rivalry with Mom have kicked into overdrive, she's rebelling big time from apprentice status and determined to strike out on free-lance scams of her own.

High professional aspirations are laudable, and Max is unflappably cool in handling them -- but deeply worried about the one great lurking menace that could ruin the girl's promising career: the possibility that Page might forget to scorn and, instead, fall in love with one of their victims. Beneath her offspring's tough, cynical exterior lies a potential Harlequin Romance.

No such susceptibility on Max's part. Beneath her cynical, tough exterior lies Machiavelli's "The Prince."

Enter big trouble in the shape of IRS agent Anne Bancroft, demanding a fortune in unpaid taxes. ("How can I put this so you'll understand? We want our cut!") They've got to stick together for one last joint operation to raise the IRS dough.

Cut to Palm Beach, playground of the rich, for some serious big-game hunting. While casing yachts for the oldest, richest, one-foot-in-the-grave kinda codger they need, they find the perfect prey in William B. Tensy (Gene Hackman), billionaire cigarette tycoon, who gives full meaning to the actor's surname -- hacking, coughing, spitting and gagging as he chain-smokes.

In Russian Mata Hari disguise, Max pitches woo to him at an art auction, where she outbids him for the world's ugliest statue (a male nude with outstanding member, accidentally amputated as it's being carried out). Chip-on-her-shoulder Page is meanwhile busy trashing a bartender named Jack (Jason Lee) for hitting on her: "For all you know, I could be the anti-Christ or have the intelligence of a thermos." The two women -- and the snappily written script by Robert Dunn, Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur -- are filled with fabulous contempt for the (erstwhile) stronger sex.

But Jack turns out to be a helluva nice guy by day and romantic astronomer by night. Page doesn't quite get it.

"I photograph stars," he tells her.

"Just because they're famous doesn't mean they don't deserve their privacy," she snaps back.

He shows her how the heavens (and the earth) move.

Max's exotic cover is blown when the billionaire takes her to a Russian restaurant and all she can say is "Da." Forced to stand up and sing her favorite native folk song, she finally comes up with "Back in the U.S.S.R." It's a terrific turn by Weaver, who is clearly digging this romp.

Hewitt is quite good, too. So's the timing of director David Mirkin, whose over-the-top moments are forgivably farcical at worst and fine black comedy, in the "Fish Called Wanda" mode, at best.

"Heartbreakers' " hands-down highlight is Hackman's outrageous tour-de-force as the unreconstructed Tobacco Titan: "Smoking's part of the fun of being a kid," he tells Max, puffing butts and billowing all the while. "We've been doing tests on some 9-year-olds, and after the initial puking they really get into it."

Moments later, his parrot falls over dead from second-hand inhalation, and I fall over with politically incorrect delight.

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