Wednesday, January 27, 1999

Playing By Heart

Posted By on Wed, Jan 27, 1999 at 12:00 AM

In a movie, what does it mean to say "I love you"? It was one thing in the heyday of screwball comedies or two-hanky romances, but today those three little words are just as likely to be loaded with fear or pain as heart-lifting joy.

That the newly minted couples in Playing by Heart, written and directed by Willard Carroll, say it with the alarming speed of movies from the past identifies the film as a romantic throwback, as does the strong conviction that the primal relationship in people’s lives is between lovers. This is ironic, because Carroll utilizes a family to construct Playing by Heart’s spine.

In the days prior to their 40th wedding anniversary, Paul (Sean Connery) and Hannah (Gena Rowlands) spend quality time at their discreetly affluent, Mediterranean-style Los Angeles home bickering over a decades-old almost-affair, while marginally discussing his recently diagnosed cancer. That death is used as a plot trump card, which is played then quietly reshuffled into the deck, indicates the film’s manipulative tendencies and generally upbeat, sunny disposition.

Meanwhile, their three daughters stumble headlong into romance. Gracie (Madeleine Stowe), long bored with her marriage to Hugh (Dennis Quaid), rendezvous with Roger (Anthony Edwards) for athletic, hotel-room sex. The gun-shy Meredith (Gillian Anderson) meets the "too perfect" Trent (Jon Stewart), then reinforces her defenses and tries to alienate him. The firecracker youngest, Joan (Angelina Jolie), nearly flattens Keenan (Ryan Phillippe) with her romantic bluster and incessant near-monologues. Concurrently, the widowed Mildred (Ellen Burstyn) comforts her gay son, Mark (Jay Mohr), who’s dying of AIDS in a Chicago hospital.

With so many characters whose connections aren’t initially clear, it helps that familiar actors are there to fill in the half-written personalities. The standouts are Quaid, with his tragic-romantic monologues delivered to engrossed bar patrons, and Jolie, who’s a jangling bundle of raw nerve endings and forthright emotional vulnerability.

Playing by Heart portrays love as the ultimate healer but, overall, the relationships represented are just facets of a conventional romanticism that’s appealingly diverting, though rarely enlightening.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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