Playing by Heart

1998, R, 120 min. Directed by Willard Carroll. Starring Patricia Clarkson, Jay Mohr, Ellen Burstyn, Anthony Edwards, Madeline Stowe, Dennis Quaid, Ryan Phillippe, Angelina Jolie, Jon Stewart, Gillian Anderson, Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Jan. 22, 1999

Like the Angelenos in Alan Rudolph's Welcome to L.A. and Robert Altman's Short Cuts who intersect at various points in a Southern California geography, the characters in Playing by Heart are denizens of a discombobulated City of Angels. But where the gradual convergence of storylines in those two earlier films felt happenstance and random in a way that gave those movies a ragged spontaneity, the narrative structure of Playing by Heart slowly reveals itself as something more purposeful. It ultimately embraces a hope, an optimism far removed from the cynical feelings with which Welcome to L.A. and Short Cuts leave you -- in fact, it's positively upbeat. Roughly spanning a period of a week, the days and nights of Playing by Heart are interspersed with little dramas which are, for the most part, about romantic relationships, both new and old, that are in crisis. There's the 40-year-old marriage that hits a bump when the husband reveals his chaste love for another woman 25 years earlier; the strained union between a couple who no longer communicate with each other to the point that they've become strangers; the confusion in the attraction between two twentysomethings who appear to be polar opposites. Initially, these stories run in linear parallel universes; in time, they tangentially touch each other, consummating in a final sequence in which all of the characters' interrelationships are revealed. The film's former -- and more interesting -- title, Dancing About Architecture, conveyed more figuratively what director-screenwriter Carroll is going for here: a meditation on the futility of trying to rationalize how the human heart works. He's mostly successful in his endeavor, although there is the occasional banal line of dialogue that cuts the movie's momentum short. (There's no postmodern irony in this triteness.) Despite this, Playing by Heart is, above all, an actor's movie: lots of monologues, lots of engaging conversation, lots of opportunities to shine without pouring it on too thickly. Everyone has his or her moment, although it is the older folks (Connery and Rowlands) and the youngsters (Jolie and Phillippe) who come off best, giving affecting performances in roles that serve as generational bookends in the film. Playing by Heart seems to say that no matter where you are on the spectrum of years, love can be a most challenging proposition.

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Playing by Heart, Willard Carroll, Patricia Clarkson, Jay Mohr, Ellen Burstyn, Anthony Edwards, Madeline Stowe, Dennis Quaid, Ryan Phillippe, Angelina Jolie, Jon Stewart, Gillian Anderson, Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery

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