A mind is a terrible thing to waste. The spectacle of a mind wasting away isn't too inspiring either, as the new Francis Coppola fiasco, "One From the Heart," illustrates with dismal authority.
Now at area theaters, "Heart" must be the most lavish, ponderous clump of stale cotton candy ever confected by an important director. Coppola's embattled Vietnam epic, "Apocalypse Now," wasn't exactly a model of lucid exposition and profound rumination, but at least it went bonkers with a bang instead of a whimper. "Heart" appears to grow out of a mental state at once fuzzy and listless. In retrospect it's touching to think of all those moviegoing well-wishers who sent contributions to Coppola when a financial crisis threatened to shut down production. After seeing what a slight, dithering conception he was actually engaged in visualizing, benefactors may be moved to pass the hat again for room and board at a nice, quiet rest home.
A trifling anecdotal romance set in a wanly fanciful, theatrical abstraction of Las Vegas, "Heart" aspires to get exquisitely choked up about an overnight lovers' spat. An early warning alarm: the lovers are deliberately envisioned as "little people" with symbolic trimmings. Frederic Forrest as Hank, the regular-guy proprietor of a salvage yard called Reality Wrecking, has lived for five years with Franny, a wistful clerk at the Paradise Travel Agency. On the evening of July 4, the fifth anniversary of their meeting, they bicker and separate. Drifting around the neon-lit streets, they keep barely missing each other -- one of several recurrent visual conceits that Coppola emphasizes and embroiders repeatedly, while allowing the actors to subsist on crumbs of characterization -- and have brief flings on the rebound.
Franny spends the night with a dashing waiter named Ray (Raul Julia) and considers flying away with him to Bora Bora, one of the faraway places she's always longed to visit. Hank is distracted by an exotic acrobat named Leila (Nastassia Kinski), who seems to be a figment of his imagination about half the time. "This is where I come to think," Hank confides, taking her back to the yard in his convertible, where they share a cozy snooze. In a Magic Moment typical of "One From the Heart" at its dreamiest, Leila walks a tightrope that mysteriously materializes while Hank pretends to "conduct" an "orchestra" of old cars, whose lights come on when he raises his arms.
Although Leila begs Hank to run away with her, he remains lovesick for Franny. Breaking into Ray's motel room, Hank makes like the cowpoke in "Bus Stop" and brashly tries to drag the half-naked, incensed Franny back to their little nest. Then he tries pleading, even singing a few bars of "You Are My Sunshine" in contrite desperation. Will Franny join Ray in Bora Bora? Will she forgive Hank? The denouement is supposed to resolve this trivial question on a note of heartwarming, tear-stained happiness, but it's more likely to recall a penetrating remark made by Franny early in the movie: "Life has to be more than this. If this is it, it's not enough."
Although Coppola insists on regarding "Heart" as a stylistic and technological breakthrough -- a delusion that is no doubt a psychological necessity from his standpoint -- impartial observers are likely to be stunned at the sheer vacuousness of the show. None of the vaunted video techniques that allegedly permitted Coppola to visualize and supervise the production more efficiently seems to have paved the way for an impressive or even diverting movie. "Heart" doesn't look remarkably better or worse than most contemporary movies. It certainly fails to duplicate the achievement of "Pennies From Heaven," which imposed both a look and style that made you sit up and take notice. One can't help noticing Coppola's self-conscious pictorial motifs -- the neon-lit surfaces and reflections, the theatrical lighting changes and settings, the painted backdrops and miniatures, repeated patterns of camera movement -- but they don't serve an expressive emotional purpose in a piddling context.
A romantic pretext this slight might suffice in a movie reinforced by extraordinary charm or stirring musical numbers or a fresh sylistic approach. It's not difficult to see what tradition the film needs to emulate. It ought to ingratiate itself in the way that Rene' Clair's "Under the Roofs of Paris" or Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" did when they were new. Instead of evolving into a spontaneous, enchanting musical fable about characters drawn from ordinary walks of life, "Heart" turns into a wayward, pretentious weepie, exposing a mawkish, simpleminded side of Coppola that is bound to ruin his reputation and arrest his development.
Since Coppola intimated on many occasions that "Heart" would be a musical, or at least a "musical fantasy," the absence of satisfying musical features in the finished product should prove especially disillusioning to trusting customers. The only hints of "dancing" are a few seconds of patterned movement among the pedestrians on a Vegas street set and a fleeting tango between Julia and Garr. The "songs" are confined to disembodied vocals on the soundtrack by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, heard every so often interpreting Waits' gnomic lyrics. Waits' hoarse, groggy vocalizing is closer to anti-singing, and it carries weird overtones from "Apocalypse Now," where the druggy voice-over narration by Martin Sheen sounded almost identical. Nevertheless, there is one comprehensible line that keeps recurring and seems to sum up the failure: "Is there any way out of this dream?"