Playing By Heart
Director: Willard Carroll. Cast: Gena Rowlands, Gillian Anderson, Angelina Jolie, Sean Connery, Jon Stewart, Ryan Phillippe, Madeleine Stowe, Anthony Edwards, Ellen Burstyn, Dennis Quaid, Jay Mohr, Nastassja Kinski, Patricia Clarkson, Alec Mapa. Screenplay: Willard Carroll.

Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery are the elder statesmen of the large, enticing cast of Willard Carroll's Playing By Heart, and so, as a sort of homage to seniority, we begin our examination with one of their dialouges. Rowlands has on the previous evening locked herself in her private bathroom, then later stormed away from Connery during a late-night discussion by the side of their pool. The source of her restless fury is that she has discovered among Connery's private papers a photograph of a woman with whom he had a brief, allegedly non-sexual affair 25 years previously. If she was so unimportant to him, and if the affair meant so little, why has he preserved her memory with this concrete reminder? How is she to react to his admission that he very much wanted to sleep with Wendy, even if he didn't? Rowlands holes up on the couch, then in the kitchen, prompting Connery to ask, "How long are you going to refuse to speak to me?"

Trust me, pal: not long. The one problem neither the characters nor the audience suffer during writer-director Carroll's debut film is enduring any protraced state of silence. The dozen or so lead characters of Playing By Heart fear silence the way Biblical people feared locusts. Any number of horribly contrived or improbably highfalutin things may spill out of their mouths so long as Los Angeles is prevented from any vicious onslaught of quiet.

"Talking about love is like dancing about architecture," reports Angelina Jolie's Joan in a brief prologue to the film. Dancing About Architecture was in fact the original title for this project, and the lesson Joan means to impart by expressing this embarking bit of wisdom is accordingly the film's defining mantra: talking about love may be difficult to the point of absurdity, but, says Joan, "that doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying." No, no, indeed. Jolie is not the only member of the cast who keeps trying, but the film fails utterly to achieve any dimensionality, any real-world resonance, or any reason for us to hang on every syllable of Carroll's gabfest. The movie is so in love with its own words that Jolie's prologue speech is actually repeated, wholesale, halfway through the picture.

Like Todd Solondz's Happiness, this film is structured as a series of alternating vignettes between different duos whose relations to one another are not always clear. Here, however, any connection to Happiness must be dismissed, except that both pictures could have done without at least a third of the persons they trot on to the screen; if Solondz wrote his script with a pen dipped in ice-water, Carroll seems to have written Playing By Heart in big block letters and with an ever-softening stick of butter. Rowlands and Connery are the first actual couple we meet; she's a Julia Child-type TV cook, and he produces her show. Their characters' names, "Hannah and Paul," appear on screen beneath their faces, as if Carroll realizes how unable we would otherwise be to sort these folks out, at least in the beginning.

Jolie's Joan, who makes the strongest impression in the movie, is a caffeine-buzzed, boisterous, shimmery-eyed dancing queen. She makes some typically brash moves on Ryan Phillippe, the stud-in-waiting from 54 and I Know What You Did Last Summer, who plays a fellow clubgoer as reticent and sullen as she is hyper and chatty. We meet Gillian Anderson as she directs an anemic-seeming production of The Miser, though the film wants you to believe the show's a hit: these characters must not be distracted from the stated regime of romantic babble, which is probably why our two glimpses of Anderson "at work" show her concluding a rehearsal and taking a curtain call on opening night. She governs the stage the way Heather Locklear "runs" D&D Advertising. Later, Anderson meets cute with Jon Stewart, playing an architect who helps Anderson from beneath the magazine rack his crew has knocked on top of her. I'm not kidding you.

The gaggle of gabbers rounds out with Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards, sans scrubs, as a man and woman who know each other only through their weekly no-tell hotel trysts; Jay Mohr and Ellen Burstyn as a twentysomething dying of AIDS and his compulsively sunny mother; and Dennis Quaid, entering long-faced and bereaved as though still shooting Savior, and telling a succession of female bar customers the awful, angry details that led to his current boozy despair. These patient ears belong to, among others, Your Friends & Neighbors' Nastassja Kinski and High Art's Patricia Clarkson, though strangely (and in this case purposefully) the stories they hear from Quaid don't necessarily seem to jell with one another.

A scene between any two of these romantic wayfarers will go one for four or five minutes, and then we head off to check on how another pair is coming along in their quest for open communication, healed pain, or encouraging progress in courtship. The patterns of what stories we pick up when may well be intended to demonstrate the universality of lovelorn troubles. Actually, though, the concurrent development of so many stories tends often enough to highlight a weakness in Carroll's writing and a flaw in his structure: many of his characters are barely distinguishable by anything more than circumstance, and thus the picture feels even more crowded than it already would. For example, Rowlands' control freak (as described by Connery) and Burstyn's tireless organizer (as named by Mohr) are essentially the same creation. Edwards, Jolie, and Stewart have quite similar, equally unvaried notes to play as would-be lovers who are purposefully kept at a distance by the objects of their desire. Phillippe is playing Anderson crossed with Mohr. Mohr himself is playing Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.

Another recurring problem between the different narratives is that while some, like the Burstyn/Mohr dialogue and the Stowe/Edwards liaison, are confined to one note (fatality and flirtation, respectively), others are sprawled all over a field of conflicts and arcs. The Rowlands/Connery couple alone is contending with infidelity, terminal illness, and the details of planning an approaching ceremony, the nature of which the filmmakers have coyly asked reviewers not to divulge. (Apparently, the characters of Playing By Heart were also co-opted beneath this gag order, since none of the relevant figures so much as whispers about this significant, imminent event until—lo and behold—it is rather cornily upon us.)

I realize, and resent more than a little, that movies like Playing By Heart come pre-girded with two different safeguards meant to render the film invincible to attack. One is that this screenplay broadcasts its sentimentality and whimsical philosophies so immediately and clearly that you can hardly assert that you didn't know what you were in for when you bought the ticket; the other is that Carroll so staunchly boils these stories down to their earnest, emotional pulp that any critical exception is quickly marshalled away as "cynicism" or "pessimism." Bear in mind, however, that I'm one bloke who gave Hope Floats a "B" rating and considers Stepmom to be one of the 15 or 20 best films of the year. Hell, I've been known to read Danielle Steel—why hide it? I am as avid a proponent of so-called "schmaltz" as you're going to find, provided the material comes by its teary epiphanies honestly (or at least doesn't pretend to great incisiveness) and offers characters and scenarios that retain a recognizable continuity from scene to scene.

What jars most badly in Playing By Heart is how false, how much like tentative drama-class exercises these interactions all remain. There is no moment in the Joan/Keenan story, despite Jolie's vivacious and easy-to-watch performance, when their attraction seems substantial or reality-based. It certainly never seems like "love," so any lessons derived in the name of "love" from their circumstances seem misbegotten indeed. The gradually-revealed obstacles to their union, while themselves introduced and handled with a succinct abruptness that feels wrong, nevertheless outstrip by leaps and bounds any semblance of sincere or tangible reality achieved in their scenes of acquaintance. The severity of the complications so outweighs the flimsiness of the attraction that any denouement except a mournful goodbye feels literally incredible: and we know Keenan isn't going anywhere, because we still haven't seen the requisite shot of Phillippe's bronze pectorals.

Some actors, including Anderson and Stewart, fare better here than do others, but the least charitable appraisal of Playing By Heart will observe how totally Carroll depends on our affection for the cast to feel anything for their characters, or to make any sense of their florid reveries. (Edwards and Stowe are particularly underused; she remains quite possibly our most wasted and under-served actress.) Tease any of these stories away from the others and observe how stunted it appears in isolation. Cast less charismatic performers and look how the whole spider web of Playing By Heart comes to tatters. Connery and Rowlands' dispute extends for far longer than seems necessary, only to be tied up with surprising brevity. Quaid's shady relation to credibility is explained conveniently by the script, even though the rigid pencil-pusher we see at the picture's end hardly seems like an eager candidate for the kind of voluntary "project" we have allegedly been watching him try out around town.

If the best that can be said of Playing By Heart is that it feels like an extended improvisation for skilled actors, the necessary and darker flip-side of that statement is that the actors must rely on their own best impulses because the writing, directing, and production come to zilch. The basic editing premise of modern movie-making, the "match-cut," refers to how the physical arrangements and properties laid out in one shot should still be in place in the pursuant camera angle, provided no action or great spanse of time has actually transpired. Look how often, though, these actors' heads are bowed when a split-second before they were facing up. Observe how disjointed are their gestures and how out of whack their postures and positionings from shot to shot. With great dismay I discovered in the end credits that Playing By Heart was assembled by Pietro Scalia, the editor who co-constructed in JFK one of the truly dazzling monuments to his craft that the 1990s have seen. Such a shoddy formal structure is something you particularly cannot afford when architecture is foregrounded not only as the profession of one of your leads, but was very nearly included in the title of your picture.

Playing By Heart is the sort of failure that is easy to watch because of the agreeable persons on screen, but which nonetheless rests complacently in the faith that good actors will dress up the spindly, undeserving foundation. These famous faces must have had a great time making this picture, and flexing their craft to save clunky expositions and lurching developments; everyone worked at well below average salary, and it's nice to think that actors will still do that these days for a script they believe in. I'm just disappointed that they felt that way about this script, whose most lasting lesson is that its whole cast deserves better work. There is nothing even remotely cinematic about Playing By Heart, which would strain credibility even on stage or on paper.

Besides Dancing About Architecture, the other prospective title for this piece was the dreadful If They Only Knew. I have now seen this film, and I know who utters that phrase and when. I wonder: what does she know that these other characters don't, and how has she proven any less na´ve than they? Whatever you know about love and modern romance after leaving this picture you almost surely were aware of at the moment you took your seat. D


Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Breakthrough Performance, Female (Jolie)

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