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Ah, The 80s!: Sweet Hearts Dance (1988)

Updated on February 3, 2016

Director: Robert Greenwald
Don Johnson, Jeff Daniels, Susan Sarandon, Elizabeth Perkins, Kate Reid, Holly Marie Combs, Justin Henry, Matthew Wohl

Sweet Hearts Dance
has a potentially compelling story, but it doesn’t know how to tell it. The elements are there for a good movie. The cast is appealing, and they each turn in very good performances. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto is stylish and, at times, beautiful. There are scenes of surprising emotional truths, although they mostly happen in the earlier parts of the film. After a while, however, the movie feels like it’s just spinning its wheels, telling its story in a repetitive and contrived way until reaching a final scene that feels like something that belongs in a sitcom.

The movie tells the story of Wiley Boon (Don Johnson) and Sam Manners (Jeff Daniels), two childhood buddies who are going through their own relationship struggles. Sam is a high school principal who’s fallen for an elementary school teacher named Adie (Elizabeth Perkins). He would like to get married, but it’s not really clear whether she feels the same way. Wiley, on the other hand, is a construction worker who’s been married to his high school sweetheart Sandra (Susan Sarandon) for the past 16 years.

From the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that Wiley’s fallen out of love with his wife, although even he doesn’t know why. There are moments where he stares at her quizzically, trying to figure out why he no longer loves her like he did. Perhaps the film’s most sincere scene comes when he breaks down and confesses to Sam that he wants to separate from his wife. Johnson is really good in these scenes. We get a sense that he wants to find that connection he had with his wife that somehow got lost over the years.

But that’s in the movie’s earlier scenes. The rest of the time he treats her so cruelly that it almost feels like he despises her. Almost everything that comes out of her mouth sends him into a mood. When she asks him if he picked up the film for her camera at the store, his response is so cold that it’s almost shocking. More often than not, I found myself asking, “God, what’s wrong this jerk?!” He treats her so badly, that when she says she wishes they could love each other, and he tells her, “Guess what? I do too!” I didn’t believe it for a second.

A match made in hell! D:
A match made in hell! D:

But maybe that’s how it is with couples who fall out of love. I don’t know; I’ve never been married. Perhaps it is realistic. What isn’t so believable are the movie’s many contrived scenes that bring it to a screeching halt. Take a particular scene where Wiley, Sam, and Sandra go on a retreat in the Caribbean. A distraught Sandra comes into Sam’s hotel room and says she wants to sleep with him, and he tells her no because she’s his best friend’s wife. She apologizes, and they hug (while lying in bed) for so long that you just know that Wiley’s gonna come walking in on them (he does).

The film’s worst scene is easily its final one, which involves Wiley and Sandra reconciling by stealing Sam’s car and driving it off a dock and onto a raft in the middle of a bog. For a movie that seemed to strive for realism in the earlier scenes, this scene here feels like it doesn’t belong. It gets even phonier when the guys are pushed out into the middle of the bog by their significant others, Sam’s car begins to sink, and everyone breaks out in a hearty laugh (Sam included, who threated to send Wiley and Sandra to prison only moments before).

The screenplay was written by Ernest Thompson, who also wrote the award-winning On Golden Pond. The man clearly has talent, and it felt as though he really cared about this story at first, but then went on auto-pilot after reaching a certain point. Not helping matters is the choppy editing by Robert Florio and Janet Bartels-Vandagriff. Certain scenes begin and end so abruptly that the effect is positively jarring, while other scenes are so rushed that they feel rather insignificant (like the emotional Christmas morning at the Boon household).

Sweet Hearts Dance is such a mess that were it not for the pretty camera shots and the good performances, it might have been unwatchable. Johnson plays a fairly irritating character, but he plays it well, while Sarandon and Perkins bring charm and warmth to their roles. Daniels is easily the best thing about the movie. Not only is his performance the most entertaining, but his character is the only one I really connected with in any way. He’s so good that it’s sort of upsetting to see his work wasted on such a lame movie.

Rated R for brief nudity, profanity

Final Grade: ** (out of ****)

What did you think of this movie? :D

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