Playing By Heart is Robert Altman-lite. It's talky, ensemble-driven fare where comedy and romance come easily but not necessarily believably, warmly but not always invitingly. It’s faux-deep and desperate to be insightful regarding the pains of modern love. The movie is more of an exercise than it is a film, a chance for its sophisticated actors to exchange witty bits and pieces of dialogue and for writer/director Willard Carroll to microphone his talents as someone with an ear for rich, almost musical conversation. It’s minor, sure. But it’s attractive and easy to engage with, good until rugs are pulled out from under each promising storyline in favor of cringeworthy sentimentality.
And considering how many storylines characterize the film, such a factor is displeasing; Playing By Heart is delightful before the time comes to wrap things up. Then and there do we have to decide if its last few moments are going to take away from the joys coming previously. In the film, interweaving tales of love in Los Angeles tangle, all well-acted (the cast is scrumptiously starry) but differing in terms of success. Couples range from young to old, happy to depressed, content to empty (but mostly empty). The most resonant narrative follows Joan (Angelina Jolie) and Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), young club-hoppers who carry loneliness they downplay; Joan is a quirky flibbertigibbet, Keenan a secretive loner. They need each other, the former realizing it much more than her object of affection.
Another focuses on Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery), an old married couple approaching their fortieth wedding anniversary and marital crisis. Paul confesses to have had an affair during the middle years of the union, though he assures his wife that his love for her grew stronger because of it. Right.
More of the film, in the meantime, is spent with characters in underdeveloped, or, at worst, uninteresting storylines, those involving couples played by Gillian Anderson and Jon Stewart (in which a burgeoning romance is burdened by irritating distrust on the former’s part), and Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards (where parties to an affair begin to reflect on their realities). A particular character (Dennis Quaid), whose relation to these people is revealed later, goes from bar to bar pretending he’s someone he isn’t; a touching detour revolves around a mother (Ellen Burstyn) dealing with the final days of her AIDS afflicted son's (Jay Mohr) life.
How the individuals of Playing By Heart are ultimately associated is ingenious enough for us to want to hit ourselves for not guessing the connections earlier. So it’s too bad that facts are revealed a while after most of the storylines have defined themselves as being love stories unafraid to climax in made-for-TV predictability. Carroll spends so much time flashing his writing talents that we expect that this is going to be something akin to a minor Woody Allen classic — why he takes the romance novel way out results in a head-scratch edged out with a little bit of blood. This could have been a subversive romantic comedy classic had he trusted his talents more.
He’s got the actors to prove it. The cast is unbelievably noteworthy, Angelina Jolie standing out in particular as a twenty-something with a personality so divine and smart you’d swear her character were based on an old flame of Carroll. Bluntly, Joan is the only portion of Playing By Heart that doesn’t feel playfully phony, Jolie delivering her director’s slippery dialogue as if someone would really speak like a Broadway oddity in '90s America. Why Joan so quickly falls in love with the mostly personality-less Keenan is baffling. She could have had a film all to herself.
But as Playing By Heart is like Magnolia-era Paul Thomas Anderson minus the heaviness, the cast is integral, and, here, are well-suited for this sort of material (playing similarly to likable Off-Broadway). They don’t disappoint — the film’s faults move in the direction of Carroll, who shows compelling talent but isn’t as sure of himself as we are of him. Playing By Heart is not anything besides breezy, bubbling entertainment with a taste for the saccharine. Whether you’re sold by it is up to you. C+