Grade: B-

Nobody will mistake David Mirkin’s sophomore feature for a work of art. Structurally the distaff variant of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is pretty much a mess, with characters disappearing for long stretches only to bolt suddenly back, and some the interconnected plot elements rather haphazardly stitched rogether. The direction is hardly graceful, offering the actors so much leeway that the scenery-chewing can get positively ferocious at times, and letting many sequences go slack and shapeless. The major figures in the narrative are all caricatures, with barely a glimmer of humanity running through their veins. And although the script is supposed to take unexpected twists and turns, not a single viewer will have any doubt about how it’s going to turn out.

And yet “Heartbreakers” has one saving grace that overrides all its obvious shortcomings: it happens to be very funny, and fairly consistently so. Like last year’s “The Replacements,” its jokes are obvious and crudely delivered, but it still works. If it doesn’t have the almost surrealistic style of Mirkin’s first film, the underrated “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” (1997), it compensates for its conventionality by earning some big laughs and plenty of giggles, and it even gives us a crowd-pleasing resolution without getting stickily sentimental about it. The picture might not be a comic masterpiece, but especially in comparison to what else is out there, it provides a reasonably good time.

The flick centers on a mother-and-daughter con-woman team. Max (Sigourney Weaver) is the seasoned pro who romances and weds wealthy men, and Page (Jennifer Love Hewitt) the striking youngster who then seduces the newly-married guys, allowing for quick divorces and handsome settlements: we meet them as they take their latest mark, Dean Cumanno (Ray Liotta), a New Jersey chop shop owner with a wise-guy attitude, to the cleaners. Page, however, is anxious to break up the family business and go it alone–a plan that’s foiled when their joint holdings are seized by the IRS. The duo then decides to undertake one more con–a major job involving an astronomically rich fellow whose bilking will set both of them up for life. Travelling to Florida, they set their sights on William B. Tensy (Gene Hackman), a tobacco multi-millionaire who’s also a chain smoker. Max poses as a Russian femme fatale to snag him, while Page is skedded to replace his Gorgon of a housekeeper Miss Madress (Nora Dunn) to be in place after the nuptials. However, the younger Connors also lets her eye fall on a sweet-natured bar owner, Jack Withrowe (Jason Lee), whom she identifies as her first solo mark; and unbeknownst to either her or her mother, Dean has decided that he can’t live without his ex-wife and is tracking her down. Before the convolutions end, true love will rear its head, scams within scams will be revealed, some macabre slapstick will intrude and all the plot threads will be tied up–though not too neatly, one must admit.

“Heartbreakers” aims to be a female version of “The Sting,” but it’s not in the same league with George Roy Hill’s 1973 crowd-pleaser. Its plot twists and reversals aren’t nearly so clever, its approach is sitcomish rather than smoothly elegant, it goes too often for the gross-out humor that’s apparently obligatory nowadays (there are entirely too many penis jokes), and its lead couple frankly lacks the charisma of Newman and Redford. Weaver looks stunning, and gives what’s probably her best comedic performance since “Working Girl” (though that’s not saying much), but she’s still awfully arch, and her Russian impersonation is an overdrawn cartoon (she’s supposed to be inept in the role, but still goes overboard). Hewitt pushes too hard as her daughter, perhaps overlooking the fact that this performance was intended for the big screen rather than a small one; her shrillness eventually grows wearying.

But some great supporting turns more than compensate for the weaknesses in the leads. Hackman is simply hilarious as the randy, perpetually coughing millionaire; there’s no subtlety in his work, but he makes you enjoy the lack of it. Tensy departs the scene all too soon, but happily he’s immediately replaced by Liotta, who quickly re-energizes the proceedings with an exuberant, manic turn. Equally fine, though very different, is Lee, who puts his goofy, laid-back charm to good use as Page’s likable suitor; the picture takes on an agreeably mellow tone whenever he shows up. And Dunn is an almost perfect replica of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers as Tensy’s nasty housekeeper. Anne Bancroft and Jeffrey Jones appear too, but to less effect; the latter’s role, in fact, is so brief that if you skip out to the concession stand you might miss him entirely.

So “Heartbreakers” is a mixed bag. But on balance, thanks to some good gags and a stellar supporting cast, it scores more often than not, and you shouldn’t feel conned out of seven bucks if you buy a ticket.