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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 MrBrown
3 stars out of 4

Thanks to a strange MPAA ruling--and much to the delight, I'm sure, of Miramax's marketing department--writer-director Willard Carroll was forced to change the title of his _Dancing_About_Architecture_ to _Playing_by_Heart_. Never in recent memory has a forced title change thrown a film more off-kilter. A pre-title prologue has the character of Joan (Angelina Jolie) explain what the original title means: "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture"--meaning that it can't be done. After the explanation, the title comes up... reading _Playing_by_Heart_. If this bit of incongruity weren't enough, Joan's explanation is directly culled from a scene that takes place later in the movie--making its inclusion at the beginning completely unnecessary.

After that confused opening, Carroll's film (which I will henceforth refer to by its original, better, title), quickly finds its footing, following a series of engaging if slight storylines that detail the romantic travails of a cross-section of Los Angeles residents. There's the aforementioned Joan, a young clubhopper who develops an interest in another, Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), who constantly rejects her. No-nonsense divorcee Meredith (Gillian Anderson) doesn't have the time, energy, nor interest for romance, but that doesn't stop the too-good-to-be-true Trent (Jon Stewart) from aggressively wooing her. Longtime marrieds Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) argue over an extramarital tryst he may or may not have have had many years ago. Lovers Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) and Roger (Anthony Edwards) are also married--but not to each other. Lying sad sack Hugh (Dennis Quaid) cruises bars and restaurants telling wild stories to anyone who will give a listen.

As with any multi-character/multi-storyline piece, some threads work better than others. The weakest of these is the Gracie/Roger story, which consists of little more than the two trysting in different hotel rooms, squandering the considerable acting talents of Stowe and Edwards. The most effective storylines are buoyed by terrific performances and/or chemistry: the appealing Anderson and Stewart work surprisingly well together in the Meredith/Trent strand, and the luminous Jolie compensates for Phillippe's adequate but fairly colorless work in the Joan/Keenan story. Jolie's spunky, heartfelt, Oscar-nod-worthy performance is easily the film's best--which is no small feat, considering the caliber of the actors surrounding her.

While Carroll's focus is largely on romantic love, he doesn't isolate it there; he sets his sights a bit wider, shoehorning in a storyline about the reconnection of a mother (Ellen Burstyn) with her son (Jay Mohr, in his dramatic debut), who is dying of AIDS. The attempt to also cover maternal love is admirable, and the story is beautifully acted and quietly affecting. But it never fits in with the rest of the other, bouncier stories; the fact that the story takes place in Chicago and not L.A. like others makes it feel more out of place.

An attempt to tie together this and all the other storylines comes at the film's conclusion, yet while they're designed to be a surprise, the ways in which everything is linked is rather predictable and a bit too tidy. The same can be said about the totality of _Dancing_About_Architecture_, which isn't as distinctive as that title (in essence, it's _Short_Cuts_ lite), but it's an agreeable, low-key entertainment that gets the crowdpleasing job done. (reopens January 22)

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