Combustible Celluloid
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With: Angelina Jolie, Dennis Quaid, April Grace, Patricia Clarkson, Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery, Gillian Anderson, Christian Mills, Kellie Waymire, Madeleine Stowe, Anthony Edwards, Ellen Burstyn, Jay Mohr, Tim Halligan, Michael Emerson, Jon Stewart, Ryan Phillippe, John Patrick White, Amanda Peet
Written by: Willard Carroll
Directed by: Willard Carroll
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 121
Date: 12/18/1998

Playing By Heart (1999)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

L.A. Stories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The best line in Playing By Heart is so good that writer/director Willard Carroll gets it in there twice. He opens the movie with Angela Jolie talking with an unseen comrade. She says, "talking about love is like dancing about architecture." Later in the movie the same story with the same punchline is there, intact, but this time with a listener (Ryan Phillipe).

Playing By Heart is the lite & cuddly flip-side of movies like Robert Altman's Short Cuts or Todd Solondz' Happiness. It moves between a group of characters in L.A., all of whom are looking for love in some way, and some of whom are suffering life-threatening diseases. Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) is a play director with a hard heart who is pursued by charming Jon Stewart (The Faculty). Madeline Stowe (Short Cuts) is having an affair with Anthony Edwards ("ER"). Both are married to other people. Dennis Quaid goes around to different bars, finds lonely people, and tells them outrageous lies. (Patricia Clarkson, from High Art, and Nastassja Kinski are two of his victims.) We later find out that he is enrolled in an improvisation class. Gena Rowlands finds out that her husband, Sean Connery, was in love with another woman 25 years earlier. Jay Mohr (Jerry Maguire) plays a man dying of AIDS whose mother (Ellen Burstyn) comes to stay with him during his last few days. And finally, Phillipe (54) plays a mysterious young man who likes to dance alone at a club. Jolie (Playing God) is the girl who finally breaks his defenses.

Playing By Heart goes down easy with its lovely shots of L.A. by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and soothing jazzy score by John Barry (Dances With Wolves). Most of the characters have dreamily huge homes with stunning art direction, and most of the actors themselves are very easy on the eyes. But when you start to take apart the stories and look at them on their own, they really don't stand up. I wouldn't care to see a movie about any of these individual stories (with the possible exceptions of the Rowlands/Connery storyline or the Dennis Quaid storyline). The characters become charictatures at a second glance, and their "development" usually happens at the drop of a hat. At the same time, director Carroll spends a good 20 minutes introducing us to each of the characters at the beginning, and then a good 30 minutes winding down at the end. (There's a "surprise" ending which I won't reveal, but each character's thread must be tightly wound up before we can even get to the climax.)

I couldn't help missing Robert Altman's and Raymond Carver's vision of L.A. from Short Cuts, where darkness lurked inbetween the bright sunlight, and where relationships were much more complex than "single," "dating," and "married." And of Happiness, where the characters were sick, but at least we believed them. Playing By Heart is a very slight and inoffensive movie. It's a lot like L.A. itself, all surface, soothing and warm.

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