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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 Greg King
3½ stars out of 4

"Talking about love is like dancing about architecture," says one of the characters of this enjoyable romantic comedy. This remark captures the elusive nature of love, and is the driving force behind this wonderful comedy/drama from writer/director Willard Carroll (the little seen Tom's Midnight Garden, The Runestone). In love there are few rules, and it's probably better to trust the heart rather than the head.

Playing By Heart follows several characters as they blunder their way through life, looking for love and happiness in modern day Los Angeles. Some of the couples are re-exploring and testing the boundaries of long term relationships, while others, who have been hurt and scarred by previous unhappy experiences, are tentatively entering new relationships.

Married couple Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) are having their differences over a past infidelity which painfully resurfaces. Somehow this brings them closer together and reaffirms the love they have shared for the past forty years. Mildred (Ellen Burstyn) is reunited with her estranged son Mark (Jay Mohr), who is dying of AIDS. Theatre director Meredith (X Files' Gillian Anderson) has been burned too often in previous relationships and is unsure of how to handle the attention of handsome architect Trent (Jon Stewart). Bored housewife Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) finds her affair with Roger (ER's Anthony Edwards) is losing its attraction and decides to end it. Compulsive liar Hugh (Dennis Quaid) does the rounds of singles bars and night clubs, approaching numerous women with fascinating and heart breaking stories. Joan (Angelina Jolie, recently seen in Pushing Tin) is attracted to the solitary and distant Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), whom she meets in a disco while on the rebound from a previous relationship.

The film's structure resembles that of maverick director Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts, etc), as the various characters and disparate narrative threads are eventually brought together in surprising but rewarding fashion. Carroll's assured direction guides the film as it weaves its way through the various strands, balancing heartbreak and pain with joy and optimism. Some of the story threads work better than others, which ultimately gives the film a slightly unbalanced feel. The most satisfactory and involving story centres on Joan and Keenan, and has an aching quality and an emotional honesty. Despite some cliched treatment, the Meredith and Trent story line also works well.

The writing is strong, intelligent and insightful, and Carroll provides his players with some wonderfully witty lines. In his most ambitious film to date, Carroll has assembled a superb ensemble cast to bring the characters to life. Connery plays a role closer to his own age for a change and gives a gruff but surprisingly touching and comic performance. Anderson brings touching vulnerability and pain to her solid performance. Jolie brings plenty of spark, spunk and sex appeal to her flamboyant performance.

Most of the film takes place at night, but, as the characters overcome their fears and reservations, Carroll moves the action into the brightness of day, which somehow adds warmth. Playing By Heart is an affecting and touching evocation of the power of love, and seems remarkably devoid of the usual cynicism. It will make the heart thump a bit faster, the spirits soar, and, yes, for the more romantic and sentimental among us, the tear ducts well.

Copyright 1998 Greg King

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