"Playing by Heart" examines the relationships between 11 people, hopping
back and forth between their lives until the end, when an event draws all
of the characters to the same place at the same time. Writer/director
Willard Carroll deserves points for ambition - - how many other artists
making their second film would dare to try and synthesize Robert Altman
and Neil Simon? Unfortunately, Carroll's reach far exceeds his grasp and,
despite its first rate cast and some very well-crafted segments, "Playing
by Heart" too often comes off like an ungainly, land-locked "Love Boat"
episode with a glandular disorder.
Set in L.A., the sprawling production interweaves a half dozen storylines.
An antisocial theater director (Gillian Anderson) is wary of an open-
hearted architect (Jon Stewart) who seems too good to be true. A brash,
talkative club-hopper (Angelina Jolie) attempts to draw out a sullen
cipher (Ryan Phillippe). An older couple (Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery)
examines their lives together while trying to cope with past mistakes and
the ravages of age. A man with a terribly sad expression (Dennis Quaid)
travels from bar to bar, telling outrageous lies to a couple of women
(Nastassja Kinski, Patricia Clarkson) and a drag queen (Alec Mapa) for no
apparent reason. Two unhappy souls (Madeline Stowe, Anthony Edwards)
carry on an affair in an anonymous hotel room. A mother (Ellen Burstyn)
fusses over her son (Jay Mohr) as he lies in a hospital bed, enduring the
final stages of AIDS.
That's a whole lot of story and Carroll doesn't manage it well. The film
is choppy and, more often than not, matters feel merely bleak or mawkish
rather than insightful. Stowe and Edwards' cheating hearts receive scant
attention and, while Ellen Burstyn and Jay Mohr try very hard, their
mother/son deathbed exchanges contain nothing we haven't seen in
countless TV movies.
As a couple who have been together long enough to weather any storm, Gena
Rowlands and Sean Connery project a comforting air, despite being handed
some of the film's worst dialogue. Connery, playing a gruff, but lovable
Lou Grant type, fumbles badly when trying to present the character's
playful side. One brief scene, showing the grand actor prancing about the
house while imitating a puppy, is one of the more embarrassing images
I've witnessed in a long time.
Jon Stewart and Gillian Anderson fare much better in their tale of wary
courtship. Anderson makes her naturally brittle nature work to her
advantage, while Stewart thankfully keeps his character from becoming
overly cute. Their sweet and sour relationship works nicely, due to the
actors' deft handling of the material. Dennis Quaid is also compelling as
the tortured liar. His vignettes with Nastassja Kinski, Patricia Clarkson
and Alec Mapa are among the film's best.
But the real scene-stealers are Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe, a
genuinely engaging odd couple. Jolie, who resembles Geena Davis in looks
and spirit, has a wonderfully blithe quality. She consistently brightens
the screen in a confident, star-making performance. And Phillippe, a very
serious young actor whose intensity often works against him, hits just
the right notes here, effectively balancing the borderline surliness of
his character with a welcome sense of vulnerability.
Willard Carroll should have picked one or two storylines and focused
predominately on them. By trying to give equal time to so many melodramas,
he leaps around excessively, diluting the impact of even the strongest
plots. When the film finally reaches its grand finale, which ties things
up a bit too neatly, the pay-off feels merely clever, rather than
revelatory. After two hours of zigzagging stories and an overabundance of
maudlin dialogue, just reaching the conclusion is a relief. Still, for
all of its awkwardness and excess, "Playing by Heart" has enough good
moments to excuse most of its failings. Except, of course, for Sean
Connery's puppy impression.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott