Time and again the movies demonstrate that while misery may love company, it doesn't necessarily satisfy. The latest illustration is "Second-Hand Hearts," a mangy inspirational romance whose original script, called "The Hamster of Happiness" and written by Charles Eastman, has been kicking around for more than a decade, suggesting that some people recognized a booby trap when they saw it. Director Hal Ashley probably misread it as an opportunity to recapture the maddening whimsicality of "Harold and Maude."
The most recent wrongie that "Second-Hand" recalls is "Back Roads." It's a futile attempt to contrive a picaresque romantic comedy out of the travails of characters depicted as incorrigible stupes and born losers. Dedicated to wringing pathos out of unappealing squalor, the movie is a victim of its own slummy sentimentality rivaling the depths of bathos plumbed by Akira Kurosawa in "Dodes KaDen" and Burt Young in "Uncle Joe Shannon."
A written prologue serves as an immediate indication that something is haywire. When the scenes begin, you understand the problem: "Second-Hand"; might be incomprehensible without this peculiarly lengthy preamble, which provides thumbnail sketches of the leading characters, and explains that they've just gotten married at the impulsive climax of a weekend bender in El Paso.
Without the preamble I would never have been aware, for example, that the heroine, a melancholy birdbrain with singing aspirations, is a hard-luck widow with three children -- Human, lota and Sandra Dee. Barbara Harris gives poor whiney Dinette such a mushy drawl that the name of her eldest, a pathetically withdrawn boy, sounds more like "Who, man?" I'm not sure the names of the other kids ever come up in the course of what passes for conversation in this degraded mileu.
Judging from Harris' pronunciation, one might also go through the film thinking the hero was named "Lull." However, a far more imposing obstacle looms in the grotesquely beefy and agitated presence of Robert Blake. You want to bolt the theater the moment you lay eyes on him, and this repellant impression is merely intensified as the movie slogs along. A grubby, yammering blockhead, Loyal is calculated to bring out the worst in a hungry, unsophisticated actor determined to wallow in earthy stupidity. Blake seems to embody a monstrous hodgepodge of the least attractive aspects of Wallace Berry, Ernest Borgnine, Jerry Lewis and Curly of the Three Stooges.
Loyal is first seen as he is struggling to recover from a hangover and keep his job at a car wash. Following this inauspicious teaser, Blake turns up at a bar where Harris seems to be employed as an equally struggling country vocalist. They engage in a protracted, awkward chat that obscures some of the information transmitted coherently in the prologue.
Loyal and Dinette seem to bicker their way to a truce and resolve to follow through on the mad union formed before the movie began. They collect her kids, who've been staying with a crusty grandpap, identified as Voyd Dusty of New Lizard, Tex., in the prologue and impersonated by Bert Remsen. After packing the children and their worldly belongings into Loyal's battered Rambler station wagon, the newlyweds set out for California.
The heap breaks down, a perfect metaphor for the movie. Separated when Loyal hitches a ride to the nearest town (Loco Junction), the poor slobs encounter other colorful cretins of the Wacky Southwest as imagined by Charles Eastman until being reunited at a roadside privy. As the Rambler sputters westward again, we're supported to be touched by the thought that a plucky, close-knit family has emerged from this vagrant band of low-lifes.
This transformation never takes place in objective terms. It remains a fond misconception evidently shared by writer, director and cast, Blake may have been uniquely vulnerable, since his marriage was on the rocks at the time the film was being made. A production story in the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying, "Here's two sick, sad wrecks of people, but they're gonna survive because God gives 'em a break and lets 'em become a family. To me, the family unit is the most important thing in the world, and civilization is doing irreparable, incurable damage to itself by destroying the family."
Unfortunately, movie folks can also inflict irreparable, incurable damage on their careers by falling like a ton of mush for material that confirms their dearest platitudes. Eastman's characters are too meanly conceived to inspire the affectionate comic rapport that emerged in movies like "Citizens Band," "Roadie" or "Melvin and Howard," which also dealt with small-town dreamers, nuts and losers.One is cosistently repulsed by Loyal and Dinette. Eastman seems unable to dignify them with anything more sincere than his own condescension toward "little people."
Eastman has had a curiously lackluster screenwriting career. His name is often invoked with great respect by knowledgeable people in Hollywood, but the movies based on his work -- "Little Fauss and Big Halsy," "The All-American Boy" and now "Second-Hand Hearts" -- have been potentially ruinous roles for their leading men.
It seems likely that the hateful streak undermining Eastman's scripts would remain undetected until the shooting was over. Perhaps his material struck a responsive hypocritical chord in Hollywood, where perceptions of the rest of the country can be distorted by the desire to attract a mass audience while simultaneously fearing and distrusting it as yahoo.
Eastman may also offer a literary gloss that seldom adheres to the typical screenplay. For example, when Dinette asks Loyal, "Are you still happy we tied the know?" his reply is full of wistful excess: "Oh, no, you can't win 'em all. You gotta take the bitter with the better, that's my philosphy." Eastman outshares this homely zircon with a concluding exchange that has Loyal observing, "You know another thing about a sunset? The longer it takes, the more beautifuller it gets."