Dir: David Mirkin. US. 2001. 123mins.

The only contribution, and it's a dubious one, that David Mirkin makes in his mildly amusing comedy, Heartbreakers, is to feminise con artists, a perennially male profession in American movies. The regal Sigourney Weaver and the sexy Jennifer Love Hewitt play a consummate mother-daughter team of grifters who make an art out of the bamboozle. A terrifically diverting Gene Hackman lends considerable support as their latest intended victim, an old big-tobacco heir. As a follow-up to Mirkin's exuberantly campy Romy And Michele's High School Reunion, Heartbreakers is a rambling comedy, failing to fulfil its promise of a roguishly charming adventure. However, name cast, intriguing premise and twisty plot should help this MGM release position itself as a moderate box office player, with brighter prospects in post-theatrical life.

The narrative, co-scripted by Robert Dunn, Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur, gets off to a good start with a depiction of the foolproof system developed by the femme duo: Max (Weaver) seduces a rich man and gets him to marry her, while daughter Page (Hewitt) is the secretary who lures him into a compromising position the day after the blessed event, leading to a divorce settlement. First victim is Dean Cumanno (Liotta), a chop shop entrepreneur who marries Max and then, out of frustration at a sexless wedding night, is trapped by his new 'wife' when her daughter is about to give him a blow job. Each time the stakes get higher, though Page is getting tired of their lifestyle.

Trying to humanise the central scoundrels, the writers construct Max as a woman who, while the more experienced and hardened of the pair, is deep down a compassionate mother holding Page as close to her as possible. For her part, Page is a budding young grifter, anxious to prove herself and break free of her mother's clutches. Their love-hate, endlessly bickering relationship comes to a head in scenes in which mother and daughter compete for the attention of the same rich men.

Strong and disciplined, but still bitter from an early marriage and broken heart, Max perceives falling in love as the absolute worst thing that could happen to her daughter. Sure enough, Page falls in love with Jack (Lee), a guileless bartender who turns out to be richer than expected. Unbeknown to Jack, he is being conned by the women, although inadvertently he complicates their schemes in some hilarious ways.

Hackman's appearance in the film's second half brings much-needed humour, though his sequences, like the rest of the film, drag and overstay their welcome. Even so, Hackman excels as a single billionaire who is preyed upon by the duo, yet still remains pretty much oblivious to their real motives. In these scenes, Weaver sports a heavy, unconvincing Russian accent, making the artifice even more tedious.In aim and style Heartbreakers wants to belong in the same league as The Sting, the Oscar-winning Depression-set comedy about big-time cardsharps and swindlers. Indeed, it is easy to draw parallels between the two yarns, with Weaver in the Paul Newman role playing an old-pro trickster out of retirement for one last score, Hewitt in Robert Redford's as a novice with a heart, and Liotta taking on Robert Shaw's mantle as the stiff-necked menace. But while Mirkin's picture is as mechanical as The Sting was, it unfortunately lacks the star appeal, effortless charm and music (Scott Joplin's piano rags) of the 1973 blockbuster.

As if to correct one shortcoming of The Sting, in which the absence of women was evident, Heartbreakers does at least introduce three strong men, played by interesting actors such as Liotta, Hackman and Lee. And Heartbreakers, like The Sting, wants to play it both ways, first titillating with immoral crooks, then turning them into softer and more humane creatures. Unfortunately, the effort shows.

Like other classic screwball comedies, Heartbreakers tries to mix visual and verbal slapsticks, high artifice and pratfalls, but the result is decidedly uneven. The film feels like a coldly calculated conceit, an obvious attempt to take archaic screen cons and update them to fit the zeitgeist of the new millennium. It is as if the film-makers asked themselves what would con artists do to score a free hotel suite or a meal in a luxury restaurant. A surprising scene with Anne Bancroft, who masquerades as a tax investigator but is actually the mentor of all cons, reveals the aforementioned secrets.

The yarn unfolds as a string of TV episodes, each with its own cliffhanger, which is not surprising since Mirkin has previously fashioned popular TV cartoon show The Simpsons. Viewers are asked to wait around patiently to see what the dirty rotten scoundrels would do next.

If you really want to watch a modern classic about con artists, then you should revisit Stephen Frears' delicious The Grifters, a tightly focused tale about a mother, her son and his new threatening lover (played by Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening), who, like the characters in Heartbreakers, could not separate their private from their professional lives.

Prod cos: Davis Entertainment Co, Irving One Production. US dist: MGM. Int'l sales: Winchester Films. Exec prods: Clayton Townsend, Gary Smith, Hadeel Reda. Prods: John Davis, Irving Ong. Scr: Robert Dunn, Paul Guay, Stephen Mazur. Cinematography: Dean Semler. Prod des: Lilly Kilvert. Ed: William Steinkamp. Music: John Debney, theme composed by Danny Elfman. Main cast: Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Gene Hackman, Ray Liotta, Jason Lee, Anne Bancroft