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Dustin Putman

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Playing by Heart (1998)
3 Stars

Directed by Willard Carroll
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery, Gillian Anderson, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Quaid, Jon Stewart, Madeleine Stowe, Ellen Burstyn, Anthony Edwards, Jay Mohr, Patricia Clarkson, Natassja Kinski.
1998 – 121 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 8, 1999.

"Playing by Heart" is an always-entertaining and fairly thoughtful film on the subject of love, and how everyone hopes for it in one way or another. Obviously borrowing the structure of a Robert Altman film, such as 1975's incomparable classic "Nashville" and 1993's "Short Cuts," "Playing by Heart" does not reach the overall ambitiousness of those two pictures, but is nicely done all the same.

In Altmanesque fashion, "Playing by Heart" introduces us to various people one at a time living in L.A. and, switching back and forth between them, their personal stories begin to play out. Inevitably, these seemingly unconnected characters will somehow come together during the climax, and also not surprising is that the several stories vary in quality.

By far the most effective and involving, and thankfully the one that is given the most screen time, involves Joan (Angelina Jolie), a talkative, witty college student who, one night, meets Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), a good-looking and quiet clubhopper. Although she strikes up a conversation with him, and thus begins to pursue him, he blatantly states to her that he doesn't date, even though he obviously likes her very much as well. Heartfelt and realistic, this section of the picture is also helped considerably by the wonderful performances from the effervescent Jolie, who definately has "rising star" written across her forehead, and Phillippe, who gives his best performance to date. Whenever these two wholly original characters appeared on the screen, things would suddenly brighten up a notch, and I always looked forward to seeing them in their next scene.

Also highly moving, if not given quite as much time as I would have liked, concerns Mildred (Ellen Burstyn), who opts to stay with her son, Mark (Jay Mohr), in the hospital where he is dying from AIDS. Gradually, several truths are let out in the open between mother and son, and the sequences between them were handled very well by the performers, particularly Burstyn, who has a heartbreaking scene towards the end where she holds her ailing grown child for the last time.

Third on the success meter, and also intelligently written and often funny, deals with lonely, but scared, thirtysomething Meredith (Gillian Anderson), a theatrical director who is afraid to get involved in a romantic relationship, even when she meets the "too-good-to-be-true" Trent (Jon Stewart). With this film, Anderson was so affirmed and believable in her character that I did not think of "The X-Files," in which she stars, once. Stewart also proves he is definately someone to watch, a comedian who in the last two months has had two dramatic feature roles, the other being as a threatening science teacher in "The Faculty." Adding a great deal of comedic support to this story, as well, must go to Meredith's huge dog who, in one amusing sequence, jumps up on Trent revealing that he is as big as a grown man. "Suddenly, I am feeling a bit inadequate," Trent slyly quips.

In the fourth plotline, Dennis Quaid stars as Hugh, a man who, night after night, drifts from bar to bar making up elaborate fictional stories about his wife and children to tell to women (including Patricia Clarkson and Natassja Kinski). Although slight, a few interesting moments arise, including one scene where, at the end of his ropes, he goes to a gay bar posing as a homosexual and lets out his feelings to an understanding transsexual.

Out of all of the characters, the two matriarchs are Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery), a married couple about to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, coming to terms with Paul's recently discovered brain tumor and questions of his fidelity twenty-five years before. I was never really able to get involved in this particular story, even though, once again, many brightly written moments were able to seap through now and again, including an on-going joke about how Paul is always foolishly giving away the endings of movies Hannah happens to be watching on television. Rowlands is one of the biggest talents among her elder peers, and she is able to bring a great deal of humanity to her underwritten role. Likewise for Connery, who has made his first serious film in a long time (I'm sure he would like to forget that "The Avengers" ever happened).

Among all of these alternating characters, the only story that is a total waste, has to do with Gracie (Madeleine Stowe), a 40-ish woman who constantly is meeting a man (Anthony Edwards) at a hotel and indulging in a strictly sexual relationship, despite both of them being married. Luckily, this story only very sporadically appears, so it doesn't really affect the film as a whole even though I am not quite sure why it wasn't just completely scrapped. Stowe can be a wonderful actress, and is saved from being all-in-all wasted due to an earnest, somewhat-redeeming scene during the epilogue, in which all eleven main characters are revealed to be somehow interconnected (although I will not dare give away the exact details).

Even with its occasionally uneven structure, "Playing by Heart" ultimately turned out to in no way be a disappointment because when the film was good, it absolutely sparkled, thanks to the fast and quirky dialogue and the mature way in which the characters were handled. The Joan and Keenan story, especially, was good enough that an entire film could have easily just been about those two. In the first scene, Joan reminisces about a man she once knew who told her, "talking about love is like dancing about architecture." Tellingly, "Dancing about Architecture" was the original title of "Playing by Heart," but the line remains to stand for a lot about the way we, as human beings, all naturally yearn to love and be loved, even during its unavoidable ups and downs.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman