Second-Hand Hearts (1981)
Written by Charles Eastman
Directed by Hal Ashby
Second-Hand Hearts represents what might be the most baffling decline in a director’s output that I have ever seen. The blame for this disaster of the film is spread out based on online conjecture, ranging from Ashby’s developing cocaine habit to studio interference in the final project to the two lead actors refusing to take any direction. Second-Hand Hearts is a second attempt to capture the quirky love story of Harold & Maude that fails spectacularly and embarrassingly. In fact, the film was so bad it disappeared from circulation, never receiving a home video release and only becoming available in 2013 as produce on-demand DVD from Warner Brothers’ archive program.
Second-Hand Hearts begins with a massive text crawl, a terrible sign of what is to come. This text crawl does nothing to help the audience understand what is about to happen, merely confusing us with names of characters we have no context for. Then the film starts, and we struggle to figure out who these people are. Eventually, I figured out that Loyal Muke (Robert Blake) is a drunk drifter who has married Dinette Dusty during a binge drinking session. Dinette is a widow who believes that now that she’s married, she can get back her three children from her in-laws. The children are named…and this is never explained or commented upon… Human, Iota, and Sandra Dee. Once Loyal and Dinette get the kids, they set off for California, where they believe life will be different.
I don’t quite know where to start with this mess. The acting is mouth gapingly bad. Robert Blake, a former Little Rascal, seems to be bringing that style of performance into this work. He overacts and emotes continuously, trying to put forth a manic, comedic tone that falls flat in every single scene. Barbara Harris seems genuinely insane. Her choices as Dinette are to mumble incoherently through almost every scene, appearing to be cognitively disconnected from what is happening around her. I know Ashby has gotten fantastic performances out of many actors, even Warren Beatty, whom he was reportedly contentious with on the set of Shampoo. This is utterly unrecognizable as an Ashby film when compared with his output from the previous decade.
Adding even more confusion to the existence of this film is that it was shot between Coming Home and Being There! Ashby had his greatest financial success with Coming Home, and that income allowed him to form his own production company, Northstar. He used this money to turn his home in Malibu into his film production headquarters, where all editing took place. According to the editor of the picture, Ashby was present at all times when they were cutting Second-Hand Hearts, and they worked on Being There simultaneously. I cannot fathom how a director could be responsible for Being There, arguably his best movie and be making this heartless garbage at the same time.
The love story in Second-Hand Hearts fails because the couple is made of two unlikable people. I don’t want them together, and I don’t think Dinette deserves to have her children back. There’s never any moments of genuine love between any of these adults or children, just moments that happen. It’s even worse because the editing is so choppy. Characters will be in one location doing one thing, and then a harsh cut has them in another place in the middle of a different conversation. I felt like I was trying to get my bearings for the entire ninety-minute run time.
Second-Hand Hearts in an unwatchable film that signals the end of an era for a once-great director. I know going forward that Ashby’s film output in the 1980s is unfortunate, but I have read this is the lowest point. The upcoming films are passable but devoid of anything that gave his work that personal touch. The 1980s were not kind to old lefties who sought to create movies without a black & white outlook on life. You walk away from Second-Hand Hearts feeling completely disoriented about how you perceive the filmmaker.