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Review: Love all around in 'Playing by Heart'

Web posted on:
Monday, January 25, 1999 2:37:06 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- How did they ever manage to gather this cast?! Writer/director Willard Carroll's "Playing by Heart" is a somewhat manipulative Robert Altman-esque dissection of modern romance, with 11 different characters pairing off (or tripling off) in tragicomic relationships of varying emotional and cinematic impact.

It's much more enjoyable than this sort of date-movie thing normally is, and that success can mostly be credited to the big names populating the film. You certainly get your star power money's worth, in the guise of Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, Anthony Edwards, Angelina Jolie, Jay Mohr, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Quaid, Madeleine Stowe, and Jon Stewart. Whew.

Of that bunch, I think the two who come off best are Jolie and (quite unexpectedly) Stewart. Jolie, a first-class bombshell with actual talent, has been getting big press ever since she puckered her puffy-pillow lips to the front of the class in the cable movie "Gia," and she fully meets the demands of movie stardom in her first decent big-screen role. She plays a hard-partying wannabe-actress with a motor mouth who finds herself falling for a young man who, amazingly enough, doesn't seem all that impressed by her immediately perceivable charms.

Ryan Phillippe plays the young man, and, like most of Carroll's other characters, he has very legitimate reasons for acting the way that he does. This is easily the most intriguing of the movie's many plot threads, and there's a beautiful scene of discovery between Jolie and Phillippe in her Volkswagen Bug that far outdistances anything else in the script.

Jolie's definitely on her way to major stardom. I don't mean this as an insult, but high school girls are going to love the sweetly flabbergasted character that Carroll's written for her, and that goes a long way towards selling a performer these days.

Stewart pulls a 'Kinnear'

The other story that really struck me (though it gets abandoned too often for less fulfilling territory) is the courtship between Stewart and Anderson. Stewart was great playing himself on HBO's brilliant "The Larry Sanders Show," but I never really considered him as movie star material. He definitely pulls a "Greg Kinnear" in "Playing by Heart," though, by not only being charming and funny, but by actually acting! He's fully locked into his scenes with Anderson, and even she's more animated than she is on "The X-Files," which is to say that she actually moves some facial muscles.

Their subplot is a rather conventional one in which Anderson doesn't want to get hurt yet again by a guy who might not care about her, while Stewart does everything in his power to convince her that he does care. His comic reaction shots are priceless, and, of course, he knows how to toss off a line, too. Stewart may end up being the shortest romantic lead in screen history (I was in an elevator with him once and he very nearly came up to my belly-button). Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

The handful of older actors (Rowlands, Connery, and Burstyn) are such pros, you fully expect them to deliver the goods. They do, but the goods they're asked to fork over aren't particularly effective. Rowlands and Connery play a couple who've been married for 40 years and suddenly decide to start arguing about an affair that Connery may or may not have had some 25 years earlier.

It's also mentioned that Connery's character has a brain tumor, but this horrible fact never gets dealt with at all. I'm starting to wonder if I actually heard him right, but it seems unlikely that I could mistake any other phrase for "brain tumor."

Either way, both Connery and Rowlands seem to be having a good time throwing little digs at each other, and it's nice to watch Connery doing something that's so much less big-budget idiotic than "The Avengers."

Some material overtly weak

Then there's the overtly weak stuff. Burstyn, who's one of my favorite actresses from the great American movies of the 1970s, is touching as the mother of a man (played by the over-challenged Jay Mohr) who's dying of AIDS. This subplot doesn't work very well at all. The affliction seems nothing more than a convenient way to get at some truths in the two characters, and I found it to be a pretty cheap device. There's a tearful moment that Burstyn manages very nicely, but the tears are relatively easy given the situation.

The most ineffective story line, though, concerns Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards as two people having an affair, which eventually intersects with Quaid's extremely creepy struggling actor character. Every one of their scenes could be jettisoned and the movie wouldn't suffer a bit. They just sort of meander, and that's a problem when there's this many stories to juggle.

The biggest drawback, however (outside of the lesser subplots), is Carroll's flair for witty dialogue. That's right; I said that his flair's a problem. For every truly amusing, naturalistic line, there's two others that sound like they were memorized word for word, and delivered in the service of laughs, but not necessarily in the service of believable characters.

Jolie's vocabulary, in particular, suggests that her preferred reading on the toilet is a Webster's dictionary. It often seems like Carroll is trying too hard, but boy, I'll forgive that any day of the week over what I usually see at the movies. You should give this one a shot.

There's a bit of bad language in "Playing by Heart," and lots of drinking. There's so many martinis poured back, you'd think it was an episode of "Bewitched." WARNING: Jolie's outfits (and the way she fills them) might flash-fry an adolescent's libido. Rated R. 120 minutes.

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