The story of "Lonely Hearts" killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez has been told several times before, most notably in director Leonard Castle's 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. (Mexican director Arturo Ripstein also took a crack at the same material in Deep Crimson.) A pair of murderous grifters, Beck and Fernandez would prey on lonely women--Fernandez would seduce them, convince them to give him their money, then the duo would murder the poor innocents. Most of their crimes occurred in the Long Island area, but the pair were eventually captured in Michigan, and executed at Sing Sing in 1951.
There's really good source material here, made even more interesting by the fact that writer-director Todd Robinson's grandfather was one of the lead detectives on the case. But Robinson's film seems to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: It can't decide if it wants to be a relatively sober neo-noir, or a floridly overstuffed drama filled with flamboyant performances. Because Robinson can't seem to settle on a distinct tone, Lonely Hearts dances perilously on the edge of self-parody.
In the more soberly told story, John Travolta (looking beefy, but giving a solid performance) stars as detective Elmer Robinson, still dealing with the mystery of his wife's suicide and an estrangement from his teenage son. When single women start mysteriously dying on his beat, he regains an interest in crime-solving, and along with partner Charles Hillebrandt (James Gandolfini, channeling Tony Soprano as a 1950s cop), sets out to crack the case.
Creating all this havoc are the homicidal duo of Beck and Fernandez, played with absolutely no restraint by Salma Hayek and Jared Leto. In Robinson's telling of the tale, Fernandez is a mustachioed, balding gigolo who seems to have a severe case of the jitters. Bug-eyed and sweating, Beck is drawn into the most terrible of excesses by his unwavering love for his partner. Giving new meaning to the term amour fou, the va-va-voomish Hayek, who is way more attractive than the overweight, pug-faced Beck, is the image of jealous, possessive love. Unfortunately, Hayek seems to think she's performing in some sultry telenovela, and tends to spend way too much time flaring her nostrils, swinging her hips and giving stony but sexy looks. It's a seriously bad piece of acting, and at times spills over into camp, which means that Lonely Hearts contains more than its share of unintentionally funny scenes. (Particularly grotesque is one in which the team can't seem to finish off one of their victims.)
Noir filmmaking has always been a risky sort of proposition, because even though it essentially deals with our most basic, and depraved, instincts, it still needs a firm hand at the helm to make it work. That Lonely Hearts, which certainly has the requisite sleaze factor, ultimately fails is because Todd Robinson simply can't make up his mind what he wants his film to be. L.A. Confidential it ain't. Not even close.