Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel “Strangers on a Train” has proven to have one of filmdom’s most enduring plots. It’s the “You kill somebody I want dead and I’ll kill somebody you want dead and the cops will never be the wiser” story, with one character more than willing to do the deed and the other having an attack of conscience. That leads to blackmail and other murderous complications.
“Breaking the Girls” is an uncredited homage to “Strangers,” which has been filmed, re-filmed and even made into a comedy (“Throw Momma from the Train”). Sadly, “Girls” is a more interesting movie to deconstruct than it is to sit through.
Agnes Bruckner (“The Woods”) plays Sara, a struggling law student working multiple jobs and depending on grants and scholarship money to get by. But the fetching part-time barmaid has won the attentions of Eric (Shawn Ashmore), and that’s irked his rich girlfriend Brooke (Shanna Collins). Fortunately, Sara’s new wealthy BFF Alex (Madeline Zima) is there to comfort her as Brooke sets out to destroy Sara’s life.
“The system doesn’t serve people,” Sara has figured out. “The system serves people with power.”
Since Alex is lesbian and Sara is nothing if not bi-curious — hey, it’s college right? — the rich girl is motivated to help her new pal. If, that is, she’ll knock off Alex’s vindictive step-mom (Kate Levering).
“They BOTH should be put out of their misery,” Alex purrs. “We’re a modern day Bonney and Read” (the female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read).
One young woman proceeds with her crime, the other acts shocked and gives the “You’re a monster” and “You can’t make me do this” defense. And things turn even more interesting, or would if this was a better movie.
The screenplay gives Sara an unusual pet — a snail. Novelist Highsmith, a bisexual crime writer of great repute, collected snails. Director Jamie Babbit (“But I’m a Cheerleader” and TV’s “Drop Dead Divas”), like Highsmith, is a Barnard College alumnus.
But for all the nods to the novelist, the movie never manages much suspense or wit. Babbit squeezes a lot of plot wrinkles into 83 minutes. But that’s largely due to many plot contrivances falling under the heading “Isn’t that convenient?” The cast is pretty but bland, the sex and violence given rather pedestrian staging. There’s no heat, no panic, no fear. The script makes too little of Sara’s legal training and works overtime to make characters passive — even the allegedly aggressive ones. The cop on the case (Davenia McFadden) may be gay and on a motorcycle (a clever cliche), but she makes zero impression beyond those trappings.
The reason the “Strangers on a Train” plot has endured is its can’t-miss premise. But “Breaking the Girls” emphasizes the girl-on-girl side of things at the expense of suspense. Neither Highsmith nor Hitchcock would approve of that.
BREAKING THE GIRLS
Cast: Agnes Bruckner, Madeline Zima, Kate Levering, Shawn Ashmore
Directed by Jamie Babbit, scripted by Mark Distefano, Guinevere Turner. An IFC release
Running time: 1:23
MPAA rating: Unrated, with violence, sexual content, profanity and alcohol abuse