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IN SHORT: Too damned precious for its own good.
Miramax has asked that I not reveal the intricate connections between the myriad of characters that inhabit Playing By Heart and I will honor most of that request. I will also tell you that this film is yet another reason why most writer-directors should choose to be one or the other. No seasoned director could look at the script by Willard Carroll and fail to shudder at the utter unbelievable dialog in the piece. Actors love unbelievable dialog, because it gives them the opportunity to make you, the audience, believe it, and thus show how good they are at their profession. More on that below.
I will tell you to completely ignore the roles played by Ellyn Burstyn and Jay Mohr as mother and dying-of-AIDS son, because they have almost utterly nothing to do with the rest of this flick, other than the writer's attempt to confuse you as you try and figure out the relationships of the nine other principal cast members. A seasoned director would have sliced 'em out immediately. There are enough interesting stories to be told in the remaining stories that, had Carroll concentrated on his writing, Cranky may not have been so ticked off.
Cranky has written, in other reviews of "romantic" movies on these pages, that he has been concerned that he is wimping out and getting weepy sentimental in his old age. Playing By Heart has utterly alleviated these concerns. A pretentious and preciously written piece of cinema, most of whose principal relationships are about as believable as . . . well, they're not.
Playing By Heart is details the love lives of five couples, whether at the beginning, middle or end stages or a product of parentage. Cranky calls the writing in this flick "precious" for the simple reason that it is so carefully crafted that it bears little resemblance to the language used by real people. It is an indicator of how good actors like Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands are, as an aging couple still confronting an affair 25 years gone, that you don't notice this when they are onscreen. It is a good indicator of what a good actress Gillian Anderson is becoming, as a thirtysomething and totally turned off to the dating scene modern woman she delivers lines equating an offer of a date with a "preemptive strike prior to pending litigation" without embarrassing herself. Jon Stewart is her "Mr. Right," a too perfect to believe total nice guy who may be someone's idea of a great romantic lead. It doesn't play that way to me, but my preferences have always been for the female gender (and, with twenty dating years as a "nice guy" under my belt, I'm more akin with Anderson's character, who knows happiness ain't out there, but hasn't totally given up).
Which leaves relative newcomers such as Ryan Phillipe and Angelina Jolie, as club kids whose dialog indicates that they are totally mismatched yet profess total devotion, who try to make up for the ridiculous words coming out of their mouths with explosive personalities. Or a total lack thereof. If that's not enough, there's an extramarital fling between characters played by Madeline Stowe and Anthony Edwards and a new exercise in role playing laid out by Dennis Quaid.
Quaid's role, at least, is quirky enough that it is interesting to watch which helps make my point. Taken individually, there are interesting stories buried underneath the quantity of characters whose stories we see. It isn't hard to figure out the principal links, but a promise is a promise. It's the misleading stories that stand out, solely because they are so obviously out of place, and they yield only one true surprise. I implied it before and I'll state it plainly now: a director must know how to edit. A writer in love with his dialog rarely does.
Playing By Heart was originally entitled Dancing About Architecture, from a phrase that goes "writing about love is like dancing about architecture. Writer Carroll is so in love with that line that director Carroll opens the flick with it (killing believability for the character who says it right then and there) and repeats the scene halfway down the line. Total stuff and nonsense or, in real people lingo, utter crap.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Playing By Heart, he would have paid...
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