"Heartbreak Hospital" is a dreary indulgence. An unfunny satire set in the world of daytime soap opera, it isn't offensive enough to inspire passionate response but is exactly the sort of feckless endeavor that's turning "indie" into one of the dirtiest words in movies.
When the film opens, hungry young actress Neely (Chelsea Altman) is living the boho New York life with her boyfriend, Tonio (Demián Bichir), and sinking under the weight of professional rejection. She can't land any gigs, which may have something to do with the fact that she's lousy--although her acting coach repeatedly assures her that she's gifted, which may have something to do with the fact that she's paying him.
Minutes before Neely escapes to Mexico to make babies and a permanent home, she secures a part in a daytime series called "Heartbreak Hospital," whereupon various things happen, none interesting. This low-rent Ann Magnuson gets bumped up from coma victim to lead player and forgets to tend to her sulky boyfriend; meanwhile, the soap's preening stars (Diane Venora and John Shea) circle her like spitting cats, as does her neighbor (Patricia Clarkson), a fanatic who can't tell the difference between truth and television.
Based on a novel by Henry Slesar, a former advertising man who became a longtime soap opera writer, and ineptly directed by Ruedi Gerber, a German theater actor with a few documentaries and short films on his résumé, "Heartbreak Hospital" lacks focus as much as it does heart. It's a measure of the film's disjointed screenplay and its confused tone (tragedy and insanity are played for awkward laughs) that Neely is also the name of Patty Duke's aspiring actress in the 1967 movie of Jacqueline Susann's kitsch masterpiece, "Valley of the Dolls." But although there are a couple of other teasing similarities between the two films--a guy named Tony, an aging diva--the allusions don't go anywhere or add up to anything, which only makes Gerber's inattention to niceties such as pacing, storytelling and the audience's pleasure all the more exasperating.
Outside of Shea, Venora and Clarkson, nothing looks or moves the way it should, and the whole thing just dithers, buoyed along by blithe self-regard and a welter of clichés. Since the characters are as unbelievable as the story, the actors have little to do but hang on to their native gifts and costumes, which is rough on Altman, whose merciless spunk outweighs her charm. And so Shea chews the scenery as Venora swans about in caftans and a turban stabbed through with a broach, bringing to mind visions of the late Quentin Crisp, and Clarkson jumps on a bicycle in a wedding dress and makes a mad dash for the exit. Although it's distressing to see Venora and Clarkson reduced to such tawdry circumstances, each has one moment in "Heartbreak Hospital" that reminds you both have done far better and will do so again.
Unrated. Times guidelines: some suggestions of nudity and sexual shenanigans with a few instances of non-graphic violence.
A Bergman Lustig Productions, Goldheart Pictures and ZAS Films presentation, released by Seventh Art Releasing. Director Ruedi Gerber. Screenwriter Henry Slesar and Ruedi Gerber, based on a novel by Slesar. Producers Ram Bergman and Lemore Syvan. Cinematographer Wolfgang Held. Editor Sabine Krayenbühl. Music John Davis. Art director Shawn Carroll. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
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