Playing by Heart (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Playing by Heart is an ensemble dramatic comedy about the many faces of love: romance, longing, loss, sex, and lust. Set in modern-day L.A., the film tells six seemingly-unrelated tales about men and women finding each other, losing each other, unearthing long-buried secrets, and discovering things about themselves and others. Nothing in Playing by Heart is groundbreaking. In fact, one could argue that every one of the stories is unremarkable to the point of being trite. But the movie is consistently well-acted and features a gallery of characters so affable that it's difficult to actively dislike any of them, or, for that matter, the film as a whole.

The biggest name in the cast is undoubtedly Sean Connery, who plays Paul, a robust man afflicted with a brain tumor. Paul is dying, but you'd never know it to look at him. Connery is in fine form, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and not a hint of James Bond in his performance. It's a pleasure to see the actor in a low-profile role like this, especially coming after The Avengers. Paul is married to Hannah (the always-reliable Gena Rowlands), the host of a successful TV cooking show. After 40 years of marriage, the two think they know everything about each other - until Hannah's discovery of a 25-year old photograph forces Paul to reveal several long-buried secrets.

Another performer of some magnitude is Gillian Anderson, whose lengthy stint on "The X-Files" has made her a hot commodity. Shaking her popular TV image, she plays Meredith, a lonely young woman whose disastrous romantic history has caused her to give up on love. Madeleine Stowe is Gracie, a woman who engages in frequent affairs to plug the void in her sexually-unfulfilling marriage. Dennis Quaid is Hugh, an individual whose personality and life story changes from night to night. Ellen Burstyn and Jay Mohr are Mildred and Mark, a mother and son coming to grips with the latter's impending death from AIDS complications. And Angelina Jolie, who gives the film's standout performance, is luminous as the sassy, self-confident Joan, a Generation X-er in search of Mr. Right. Also in the cast are Jon Stewart, Anthony Edwards, Nastassja Kinski, and Ryan Phillippe as partners for the various main characters.

Even though Playing by Heart doesn't offer challenging material or an original structure, it is a pleasant movie-going experience - an enjoyable diversion when you're not in the mood for something hard-hitting or deep. Most of the recent crop of ensemble pieces (notably Your Friends and Neighbors and Happiness) have plumbed the dark side of the human condition. Playing by Heart stays in lighter and more optimistic territory (even the dying-from-AIDS plot offers a catharsis). Despite limited screen time, the characters all succeed in their quest to capture our sympathy. They're likable, and we want them to resolve their problems. It's also noteworthy that none of the individual segments comes across as considerably weaker than the others, and writer/director Willard Carroll (whose resume includes a low-budget horror flick called The Runestone) doesn't shortchange anyone. In fact, this is a rare case of a two-hour motion picture that actually fits the running length.

Another satisfying aspect of Playing by Heart is the dialogue. Too often in contemporary dramas, we are forced to endure a seemingly-endless stream of tired clich├ęs and half-baked platitudes. They have become the language of screenwriters, who too often take the easy way out. In Playing by Heart, the characters at least speak intelligently, if not always realistically. It isn't necessarily possible to predict what someone is going to say next, although there's little mystery about how the romances are going to end up. However, for those who like to solve puzzles, there is the question of the tangible link that ties all of these seemingly-unrelated stories together. The movie drops enough hints so that the astute viewer will be able to figure it out before it's disclosed. (And don't expect a revelation of cosmic proportions.)

Love is an emotion that everyone experiences at one time or another. For that reason, at least one of the stories in Playing by Heart is likely to touch each viewer to some degree. Cynics may balk at the audience-friendly disposition of the film, but that's usually only a bad thing when melodrama suffocates intelligence, which only happens here on rare occasions. On the surface, the title doesn't mean much (although the film's original name, Dancing about Architecture, which is from the quote "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture," is even more cryptic), but, after seeing the film, it seems to fit the mood. Playing by Heart will not make many Top 10 lists, but, as a way to spend a January afternoon or evening, it's an enjoyable diversion.

Playing by Heart (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1