Too bad the term "adult" was long ago hijacked by the sex-movie industry as a euphemism for that particular genre of filmed entertainment. The adjective would otherwise constitute the perfect description of the kind of high-toned, thoughtful romantic dramas turned out by Sydney Pollack, the director of such slick crowd-pleasers as "Havana," "Absence of Malice" and the Oscar-showered "Out of Africa."
Pollack -- who made yet another strong impression as an actor in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut -- specializes in elegantly photographed, smartly scripted stories of 40-ish men and women who are thrown together under unusual circumstances. The actors and settings look good, the dialogue often rings true and two or three attractive subplots compete for attention. So why isn 't his work more compelling?
"Random Hearts," Pollack's second pairing (following 1995's "Sabrina") with box-office guarantor Harrison Ford, doesn't exactly see the filmmaker exploring new terrain. It's melancholy, clear-minded fare that's subdued, laborious and, at 133 minutes, goes on long after we've lost interest in the fate of the leads and their prospects for a future together. At least there's a sophisticated jazz score by Dave Grusin to fill in some of the blank spaces.
The overcooked saga takes its time to unfold, as we observe details of the domestic lives of two married couples in Washington, D.C. Dutch Van Den Broeck (Ford), a gruff but likable Internal Affairs cop, postpones an early departure for work in favor of a morning lovemaking session with his model-pretty wife, Peyton (Susanna Thompson). Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas), a high-strung congresswoman from New Hampshire, discusses her upcoming campaign with husband Cullen (Peter Coyote), who's set to fly to New York on business. Moments later, Peyton and Cullen are seen standing in the same line at the airport.
The two protagonists then embark on what seem like well-established routines. Dutch makes a court appearance, grills an insolent teenager (Ariana Thomas) and defuses a tense, potentially deadly situation involving Detective George Beaufort (Dennis Haysbert), a colleague who may be on the take. Kay, meanwhile, meets in gleaming office buildings with various underlings and advisers, including a wise, crusty media consultant played by Pollack.
News of a local air tragedy, which has resulted in the deaths of scores of passengers on a flight bound for Miami, pops up on various television screens, but neither the police officer nor the legislator pay much attention. Dutch then learns, through a message on his answering machine, that his wife made a last-minute trip to South Florida. His anguish grows as he becomes convinced that she was on the doomed plane -- and was most likely traveling with another man.
Already tough going, "Random Hearts" shifts into even more traumatic terrain as the surviving spouses go through the torture of meeting with airline representatives, gathering at an airside hotel and identifying their respective loved ones via the cold, detached method of viewing their corpses on a monitor.
Obsessed with uncovering evidence of his wife's secret life, Dutch begins to resemble a stalker, practically assaulting Kay with speculation about her husband's likely career as an adulterer. She remains in denial and threatens the stranger with harassment charges. "He's through with her and she's through with him, and we're through with the both of them," Kay declares, practically yelping. "You leave me alone."
Love, of course, finds a way through all the pain. But not before a bittersweet trip to Miami, as both of the walking wounded visit the South Beach hotel where their former significant others were planning to meet. It's a somber experience, as the two take in the tropical, exotic sights and sounds and examine the love nest. The trip ends oddly, when Kay explodes in anger that turns into amour and Dutch cautiously returns her affections. It's a short, passionate exchange that suddenly proves embarrassing for both parties.
"Random Hearts," which eventually adds sex and violence to the mix, often feels authentic, as if two people hurt in this manner might actually discover a common bond and run smack into a measure of solace that's mutually satisfying, at least for a while. It's unfortunate that Pollack wasn't able to exploit that sense of realism in the cause of moviemaking that might move us.