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Playing by Heart is the new, forgettable title (dreamed up, it seems, by whoever names Ed Burns’ movies) for the complicated ensemble chatfest recently known as Dancing About Architecture. The change reportedly came about because we the audience are too stupid to tell the difference between two films with “Dancing” in the title. It is my contention that if the hordes that studio execs imagine flocking to see Meryl Streep as a careworn but hearty Irish farmwoman (I’m guessing here) in Dancing at Lughnasa are disappointed to find Angelina Jolie in a silver slip dress, then it’s they who are stupid.
Not that there’s much else to recommend Playing by Heart; it has winning little curlicues peeping around its edges, but the film’s fancy structure is unnecessary and self-congratulatory. The script follows four Los Angeles couples and their exes and lovers as they try in vain to dance about architecturethat is, to talk about love. Jolie, as party girl Joan, recounts the old saw in an actressy monologue that kicks off the film, adding on the “talking about love” part to suit the script’s purpose. She is in the process of leaving her cheating boyfriend when she attracts the interest of angelic blue-haired club boy Keenan (54’s Ryan Phillippe). He gives her a quarter, and, improbably, she pursues him with flighty determination, demanding drinks and inviting him to such nondates as meeting at the movies. Phillippe acts as if he sponges down with Novocain before each scene, although the script gives him little to do except endure his screen partner’s adorably self-obsessed monologues until it’s time for him to make the Big Confession about why he’s so hard to reach, whereupon they both blurt out the three little words in a torrent of tears.
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Joan and Keenan’s relationship is entertaining to watchthe wardrobe excesses alone are absorbingbut not entirely convincing. More uncomfortably probable is the sight of Gillian Anderson as surly career-gal Meredith finding ways to push away patient suitor Trent (Jon Stewart, who’s not as cute as the script keeps saying he is). Meredith, who’s been “scalded,” as she says, by loveher ex-husband, a youthful sweetheart, turned out to be gayengages in a casebook of self-flagellating neuroses in an effort to rid herself of Trent’s merlot and flowers, but Trent, a cardboard Mr. Wonderful, won’t let her turn him into yet another embodiment of masculine evil.
While Trent tries to break through Meredith’s defenses, Hugh (Dennis Quaid) embarks on a mysterious mission that seems to involve bamboozling women in a variety of bars with stories of horrible misfortune; these scenes are observed by an enigmatic black woman at home in all these watering holes. Quaid is wonderful as this unpleasant fantasizer, simultaneously smug and desperate, but the possibilities of Hugh’s bizarre behavior are dismissed with a rather dull explanation. Meanwhile, in the stalest story line, carefree, beautiful Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) tries to keep her adulterous liaisons with Roger (Anthony Edwards) string-free while he pushes for more. And elsewhere, in Chicago, dying Mark (Jay Mohr) demands one last, honest talk with his façade-friendly mother (Ellen Burstyn, whose face has been rescrewed too tight).
Presiding over the messy struggle for love in a sea of insecurity is a handsome, well-off older couple, Paul and Hannah (Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands), who face a health crisis that sparks the revival of a 25-year-old period of marital turmoil. Connery and Rowlands bring a playful regality to their roles, and Rowlands’ nuanced anger is especially effectiveyou can see how much it hurts Hannah to probe the wound left by her husband’s old near-affair, but also that she’s swapped facing the reality of his fatal tumor for rehashing the nasty truths of a marriage-threatening romance. As in so many contemporary films, all of the characters turn out to be connected in a really obvious and totally unnecessary way.
The lovers, pursuers, and fantasizers of this large if specialized slice of humanitysince when does a sample of well-off, unbusy, great-looking Angelenos represent anything but itself?talk about love mostly by not talking about it if they can help it. They avoid the subject’s specificities and maintain a cheerful front that establishes or maintains some kind of connection. But in each case, one half of each team is tested by the other half, forced into spelling out the emotional realities people are more comfortable taking for granted. These aren’t earth-shattering truths, but they’re real enough: I like you/I love yousimple on paper but tough to sayand their corollaries, I want to be liked/loved.
The acting is mostly excellent, particularly Stowe’s sexy, confident walk; Connery acting the pleased puppy on the way to bed with his wife; Jolie, having been told, “What did I ever do to deserve you?” allowing her tough-moll pout to melt into a child’s grin before saying, “Usually that line is screamed at me by someone running for the door.” And it’s nice, at this point, to see Gillian Anderson kissing anyone.
Many recent films, whatever their level of craft, have the generosity to be good-natured and wish no ill on their audience or characters, but Playing by Heart, despite its too-clever structure and perfunctory supply of insight on matters of the heart, sets out to prove that love, real and persistent, can break through any defense thrown up by death, neurosis, or fear. Playing by Heart might not win any awards for groundbreaking idiosyncrasy, but when’s the last time a movie had such good intentions?CP