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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Life must be easier in cultures with extended families and arranged marriages. In the U.S., which is overrun with freedom of selection, couples can't get their love lives together. The very overchoice available here tempts some women and men to gather up partners who they feel will complete them while it invites others to do what they can to avoid the hunters. Willard Carroll, whose only other directing credit is, logically enough, for a horror film ("The Runestone"- -about an unearthed stone buried in North America by Norsemen), assembles a group of people with shaky relationship histories, mixes 'em up for eight days of fireworks, and then allows us to sit back and watch the sparks fly.

"Playing By Heart" has quite a bit going for it. Foremost is the crackerjack cast, headed by Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands--who have never before worked together and give you the impression that they have indeed been married for forty years. It's a handsome production, displaying a Los Angeles that's free from dregs, drugs and decadence, a picturebook-pretty town whose characters live in homes that seem to spring to life from the pages of Architectural Digest. Finally the film evokes some suspense in its audience, who will wonder throughout how these disparate people are related and will be astonished at how well director Carroll brings them together in his final scenes.

Its principal flaw is its disjointedness. Until Carroll shows the affiliation of the eleven people in various stages of connection, he imparts the impression that he's telling six wholly separate stories. The narrative is not helped by Pietro Scalia's disjointed editing. You could swear that Scalia is cutting away from scenes in mid-sentence even if he is not quite that intrusive. His transitions are so abrupt that "Playing By Heart" resembles a collage of six different films cemented together to demonstrate different takes on the subject of love to a Cinematography 101 class at NYU.

Although Robert Altman, the premiere director for movies of this nature, is not credited as Carroll's mentor, "Playing By Heart" looks as though it were cloned from Altman's mosaic "Short Cuts." That picture takes place as well in southern California, making good use of a similarly sublime cast, benefitting as "Heart" does not from an adaptation of the great Raymond Chandler's short stories. Altman's people are a more entertaining lot, featuring one phone-sex purveyor who feeds her baby while playing her trade. Carroll's people seem to have no larger-than-life problems but are rather afflicted with some routine dilemmas, and in the case of the eldest couple a particularly silly one blown up to divorce-sized proportions but a most undiplomatic fellow.

The film had a working title "Dancing About Architecture," taken from a quote by one of its participants that "talking about love is like dancing about architecture." That may be so, but Carroll's people are out to prove otherwise. Examining the plight of the sixty-something Paul (Sean Connery) and his wife of forty years Hannah (Gena Rowlands), Carroll lays out a marriage of a couple who are doing quite well, living in a lavish, capacious home in which Hannah regularly tapes her TV cooking show. Their union is on the verge of a rupture by a vivid discussion of a link that Paul had a quarter century ago. Rather than laugh off the near-affair, Paul insists on dredging up the passionate feeling which his brief liaison evoked in him, causing unnecessary harm to his lengthy union. By contrast, the youngest couple-- party girl Joan (Angelina Jolie) and her new discovery Keenan (Ryan Phillippe)--are almost defeated before they start because the mysterious young man, a frequent guest at the local disco, insists "I don't date." Dennis Quaid has his moments as a flagrant liar, Hugh, who visits bars to tell women the most egregiously far-fetched stories about the wife he "lost." Only one of his listeners, a transvestite (played winningly by the cast's relatively unknown Alec Mapa), sees right through him. Add a dreary affair between a married man, Roger (Anthony Edwards) and a woman who wants to keep the relationship free of baggage, Gracie (Madeleine Stowe); and perhaps the most complex attempt at connecting--between a resisting theater director, Meredith (Gillian Anderson) and a pursuing Trent (Jon Stewart)--and you have your pot pourri of romantic possibilities. In a seemingly unrelated story, one which deals with maternal, rather than romantic, love, a tearful mother, Mildred (Ellen Burstyn) is confronted by her son who is dying of AIDS, Mark (Jay Mohr) and who insists that his mom tell him the truth about her marriage before he dies.

The film is occasionally witty, with mismatched characters going about their lives as though their strings are being pulled by Neil Simon. If you're willing to go with the warmed-over sentimentality and unoriginal situations, you'll be grandly entertained by some of Hollywood's accomplished performers. The movie would have worked better if it were structured more like Arthur Schnitzler's classic tale of love, "La Ronde," which is enjoying an adaptation currently on Broadway. In that theater piece, the scenes interlock with one another: two characters appear in each and one of these moves into the next to afford a link. Nor did Schnitzler need to rely on five large dogs and a one-eyed cat to show how human lives are, by contrast, all too complicated.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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