It is the Fourth of July weekend in Las Vegas, and Frannie (Teri Garr), who works in a travel agent's, leaves for home after setting up the display for tomorrow's business. She has a surprise for her boyfriend Hank (Frederic Forrest), and when she arrives back at the house they share she jumps into the shower to freshen up in anticipation of their going out tonight, for today is the fifth anniversary of their first meeting. However, Hank has a surprise for her as well: he has bought the house, something she is none too pleased about and when he turns down her offer of a holiday in Bora-Bora, they launch into yet another row...
The reputation of One from the Heart precedes it, meaning it's impossible not to watch and study it to discover where the massive budget went - for a light romance that should have cost a couple of million dollars. And for that aspect, you cannot say you can't see where that money was spent, with every scene shot on a variety of lavish sets that recreate Las Vegas and its environs as Vittorio Storaro's camera glides through it, making the most of the tricks and helping the editing run smoothly. But here was where producer-director Francis Ford Coppola got his unwanted renown for having more money than sense.
Actually, that reptutation began with his previous film, Apocalypse Now, but that was a blockbuster-sized hit, and perhaps he believed lightning would strike twice on a similarly expensive shoot. It didn't, garnering a terrible standing amidst the other films of 1982 as critics brought it down and audiences stayed away, so much so that Coppola was still trying to make his money back from the film that took him to bankruptcy nearly two decades later. The main problem appeared to be that for the amount of cash thrown at this, the rewards were small considering the plot could be summed up as "They split up, they get back together" and more attention had been paid to creating a forced perspective Vegas set.
Presumably Coppola wanted to have One from the Heart to resemble a swan, elegantly gliding along the surface and leaving us impressed with its beauty while the legs did all the strenuous work to maintain that illiusion of grace. Sadly, the swan's pumping legs are all too apparent, and the film looks more like someone running very fast to stand still: you half expect it to collapse in a heap of exhaustion at the end. That said, it does have a very striking appearance, too artificial to be truly radiant in the way that was intended, but with the pleasure of watching a lot of intricately designed profligacy that is never less than diverting.
Of course, lost in all of this are the actors, and while Garr and Forrest do their best to breathe life into characters that would be hard pressed to fill up the plot of a sitcom episode, the two alternatives Hank and Frannie meet do better. Raul Julia's Ray is a winning Latin lover, just as suave as the script requires without ever being smarmy, and Nastassja Kinski contributes a much-needed soulful quality as circus performer Leila, who wins the heart of Hank then finds that she cannot hold onto it. It's troubling that following the potential narrative threads of these pairings would serve the film better than bringing Hank and Frannie back together, and the fact that this is a tribute to old time musicals simply piles on the artifice. With dance routines either stylised through their imagery or resembling a Kids from Fame number with jiving in the street, they don't match well with Tom Waits' reflective songs, sung by him and Crystal Gayle. When you can see where Coppola went wrong, this can be frustrating, but it is compelling for what it's worth.