Since its initial theatrical release Heartbreakers (2001) has drifted into relative obscurity. Heartbreakers, despite its lack luster promotional art, is an excellent comedy that was way ahead of its time. Heartbreakers was director David Mirkin’s follow-up to the cult classic comedy Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997). Mirkin had been a show-runner on The Simpsons (from 1993-1998) and a writer on The Larry Sanders Show before transitioning into almost exclusively work on feature films. Mirkin’s credentials speak to his comic genius and go along way in explaining why Heartbreakers is as good as it is.
Heartbreakers tells the story of the mother/daughter team of Max and Page Conners (Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt) who con a man into marrying Max only for Page to seduce him so that Max can catch them, divorce the man, and then collect the alimony. The film opens with them pulling this con on professional chop-shop man Dean Cumanno (Ray Liotta) before they set their sights on tobacco tycoon William B. Tensy (Gene Hackman). Along the way Max enlists her mentor Gloria (Anne Bancroft) into coning Page while Page falls in love with her own mark Jack (Jason Lee). It’s a premise that owes more than a little to The Lady Eve (1941).
The serpentining narrative of Heartbreakers, with all its double crosses and schemes, is held together by the central leads. As with Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Heartbreakers is focused entirely on the two women and their journey together. The difference is that now Mirkin has set his sights on lampooning the conventions of the “marriage plot” via the crime genre. Heartbreakers is as blunt, crass and clever as anything that Paul Feig ever made while also subverting the romantic comedy.
This is largely why Heartbreakers has failed to find any longevity. The film was sold and marketed as a cute little romantic comedy rather than as the witty and unique piece of quasi-feminism that it is. Back in 2001 people weren’t ready for a romantic comedy with two hard as nails women in the leads. Heartbreakers wasn’t soft or feminine enough so the studio tried to compensate with its ad campaign. However, now those images follow the film around from one streaming platform to another without any indication to new potential viewers of the kind of film that it really is.
Some of the contemporary criticisms are still valid like the romance between Page and Jack. But on the whole Heartbreakers delivers as both a romantic comedy and a crime comedy. Ray Liotta and Sigourney Weaver are particularly good in their scenes together as their morally impaired characters learn to legitimately love each other for their corruption and ruthlessness. Liotta had long been playing tough guys so to see Weaver rise to the occasion in an instance of casting against type and be as tough as Liotta is a lot of fun.
In this age when the studios are struggling to come up with content with strong female leads Heartbreakers provides an excellent blueprint. In spite of the fashions, Heartbreakers feels much more of this moment than of 2001. It’s one thing to see women characters in traditionally male roles, but to see a typically female oriented genre film reclaim its feminist power is far more inspiring, unique and entertaining.