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Playing By Heart

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Playing By Heart

Starring: Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn
Director: Willard Carroll
Rated: R
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: January 1999
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Sean Connery, Anthony Edwards, Angelina Jolie, Jay Mohr, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Quaid, Gena Rowlands, Jon Stewart, Madeleine Stowe

Review by Steve Rhodes
2 stars out of 4

"You can't talk about love," Joan (Angelina Jolie) tells us in the opening to PLAYING BY HEART. "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture." (The film's original title was DANCING ABOUT ARCHITECTURE, but they were forced into changing it before its release since the title was deemed too close in name to DANCING AT LUGHNASA.)

The characters, who appear on a virtual revolving stage, do exactly that -- talk incessantly, in excessively "clever" monologues, about love. Pairs of actors deliver most of the speeches, but the actors frequently sound like they are addressing the audience and not each other.

PLAYING BY HEART has a star-studded cast (Gillian Anderson, Madeleine Stowe, Anthony Edwards, Ryan Phillippe, Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery, Dennis Quaid, Ellen Burstyn, Jay Mohr, Jon Stewart, Patricia Clarkson and Nastassja Kinski), but it would give too much away to describe even their relationships. Some of them are sleeping with others, some are related by marriage, and some are acquaintances that meet in bars. The story tries to keep their interrelationships hidden as long as possible.

The story switches every few minutes between the seemingly disjoint stories in the same way that the old Carousel of Progress at Disneyland kept rotating the audience to a new stage. Eventually and predictably, the movie, written and directed by Willard Carroll, brings all of the disparate pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle that is solved, miraculously, by dropping all of the pieces on the floor. There is only one true surprise in the story's resolution, which does provide some much-needed humor in an otherwise sappy script.

This same basic plot format worked successfully in Robert Altman's SHORT CUTS, but PLAYING BY HEART doesn't have the same intelligent level of writing as SHORT CUTS.

Looking handsomer every year, Sean Connery plays the male half of the older couple in the play -- oops, I mean movie, although it certainly feels like a play. Gena Rowlands plays his wife. They have agreeable little arguments in which he says things like, "There isn't anything to talk about; of course there is, but I don't want to talk about it."

As a husband named Hugh, Dennis Quaid plays the strangest character. He goes around bars making up horrible stories as a way to hit on women by gaining their sympathy. One time he claims that, while drunk, he killed his wife and child in a car accident, which is certainly one of the strangest come-ons ever. If a drunk came to your table claiming to have recently killed his family while drinking, would you invite him to stay? Like most of the movie, things are transparently not what they appear to be on the surface. And by Hugh's second fake story, you can begin to see what is going on. Whether you care or not, given the cloying level of the pseudo-sophisticated dialog, is questionable.

"I'm better at all the lies I've manufactured than the lies I'm living," Hugh confesses. The cynical and melancholy movie wants to be romantic and message-rich, but comes across instead as stilted and dishonest as Hugh's barroom prevarications.

PLAYING BY HEART runs 2:01. It is rated R for profanity, sexual situations and mature themes and would be fine for teenagers.

Copyright 1999 Steve Rhodes

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