Playing by Heart

EntertainmentMoviesJay MohrTelevisionGillian AndersonGena RowlandsEllen Burstyn

Wednesday December 30, 1998

     Willard Carroll's "Playing by Heart" is a fine example of the traditional-style, multicharacter love story featuring an all-star ensemble cast, beautifully headed in this case by Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery. In structure and in its Los Angeles locale it brings to mind such films as Alan Rudolph's "Welcome to L.A." and Robert Altman's "Short Cuts"--though it could be set just as easily in New York or Chicago.
     That's because its terrain is emotional, not geographical, and Carroll probes it deeply and engagingly. He serves his cast--and thereby his audience--impressively in directing his actors in notably well-written roles. If "Playing by Heart" is the kind of film that used to be known as a "woman's picture," it certainly provides more emotional nourishment than most other mainstream movies generate these days.
     "Playing by Heart," in for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run at the Royal and reopening in national release on Jan. 22, is quite an accomplishment for a filmmaker known primarily for "The Runestone," a handsome but routine and pretentious 1992 horror picture.
     Rowlands and Connery are so absolutely right for each other it's a wonder no one ever teamed them before. She is beautiful, he is handsome and the chemistry is palpable. Their Hannah and Paul make a stunning couple as they approach their 40th wedding anniversary. The impending milestone is darkened, however, by an unexpected turn of events and intensified by a flash of jealousy experienced by Hannah as she is inadvertently reminded of her husband's attraction to another woman 25 years earlier.
     It is gratifying to watch two mature adults, clearly deeply in love with each other, working their way through crisis with refreshing honesty and directness--and not without humor, either. Rowlands and Connery, who play a TV chef of Julia Child-like status and her producer-husband, are a pure joy to behold, and they provide a ballast and resonance that enriches the entire film.
     Carroll cuts between them and several other stories. Angelina Jolie's Joan is a brash but likable aspiring actress who, in the midst of splitting up with her boyfriend by phone in a nightclub, finds herself attracted to a bystander, Ryan Phillippe's Keenan, who inexplicably resists her considerable charms even though he is clearly drawn to her.
     Gillian Anderson's Meredith, in turn, is a success as a stage director but has been so unlucky in love she reflexively tries to send Jon Stewart's charming and intelligent architect packing before she even gets a chance to become acquainted with him.
     Meanwhile, Madeleine Stowe's Gracie is caught up in a hot affair with Anthony Edwards' Roger, who is eager to take their relationship to a more serious level despite the fact that both are married to others. Ellen Burstyn's Mildred is trying to comfort her son Mark (Jay Mohr), who is trying to get his mother to accept that he is in the final stages of AIDS-related diseases.
     Finally, there's Dennis Quaid's Hugh, who seems to have a penchant for getting drunk in bars and restaurants, making heavy-duty passes at Patricia Clarkson's Alice, Nastassja Kinski's Melanie and even an upfront, compassionate drag queen, played with humor and wisdom by Alec Mapa, who is one of the film's strongest presences.
     Carroll's key inspiration is in how he brings his film to a conclusion, one that is not merely surprising but also deeply satisfying, giving "Playing by Heart" unexpected breadth and depth. Throughout the film Carroll has the strong assistance of Vilmos Zsigmond's expressive camerawork and John Barry's mood-enhancing score, but it's the film's bravura concluding sequence that takes the full measure of Zsigmond's and Barry's contributions. "Playing by Heart" takes aim and hits the bull's-eye.


Playing by Heart, 1998. R, for language. A Miramax Films presentation. Writer-director Willard Carroll. Producers Meg Lieberman, Carroll, Tom Wilhite. Executive producers Paul Feldsher, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Editor Pietro Scalia. Music John Barry. Costumes April Ferry. Production designer Melissa Stewart. Art director Charlie Daboub. Set designers Patte Strong, Mark Poll. Set decorator Cindy Carr. Running time: 2 hours. Gillian Anderson as Meredith. Ellen Burstyn as Mildred. Sean Connery as Paul. Anthony Edwards as Roger. Angelina Jolie as Joan. Jay Mohr as Mark. Ryan Phillippe as Keenan. Dennis Quaid as Hugh. Gena Rowlands as Hannah. Jon Stewart as Trent. Madeleine Stowe as Gracie.

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