Remember That Movie: Playing by Heart

In 2003, a movie with a huge cast of characters about the pursuit and maintenance of love captured hearts and arguably became a classic romance. But what you probably don’t remember is before that in late 1998 another movie about love featuring a large cast was released. That movie was Playing by Heart, the $20 million ensemble romance that made $3.9 million, so titled because all the characters are letting their hearts and passions be their guide (or learning to).

The film does indeed have a large cast: Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Connery, Anthony Edwards, Angelina Jolie, Jay Mohr, Ryan Phillipe, Dennis Quaid, Gena Rowlands, John Stewart, and Madeline Stowe, with appearances by Patricia Clarkson, Michael Emerson, and Natassja Kinski.

In case you don’t remember:

Gillian plays an aloof theater director who is asked out by the architect played by John.

Jay plays dying son to Ellen.

Sean is ailing husband to TV chef Gena, who are sorting out an old affair.

Angelina is a recently-singled, feisty and energetic clubber who meets a quiet loner played by Ryan.

Madeline is a married woman having an affair with a married Anthony.

And Dennis plays a man who hops from bar to bar, telling anyone who’ll listen stories of personal tragedy and scandal.

Playing by Heart lacks the magic and whimsy of Love Actually, but it does try for something more than the typical girl-gets-guy romance films and offers some great performances by Gillian Anderson, Dennis Quaid, and Angelina Jolie – especially Angelina Jolie.

It’s obvious that Ms. Jolie’s tough girl persona sells – that’s why she keeps playing different variations of that type – but at this point we’ve seen that role over half a dozen times! Playing by Heart’s release occurred right in between her first two award-winning roles (Gia and Girl, Interrupted) – just before her early bad-ass roles (Gone in 60 Seconds, Tomb Raider). Here she is so magnetic, charming, and irresistible that no guy would mind listening to her prattle on endlessly about her cat or a bad day in class as long as it meant being on the receiving end of her persistent attention. Her performance is worth the rental price alone. I found myself wishing that the entire movie was about her character, Joan, to the point where I wished we saw Angelina in more of these kinds of roles.

Alas, we rarely ever see Angelina in a role as good as Joan and this movie isn’t just about Joan, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing else of interest here.

Dennis Quaid is engaging and mysterious in a performance that reveals itself slowly. However, his story is unfortunately dropped in the end in favor of his wife’s.

The big surprise is John Stewart, who jumps through hoops trying to win the affections of Gillian Anderson’s emotionally-fortified Meredith. Contrary to his assertions as lacking any skills as an actor, Stewart is surprisingly appealing and I found myself cheering for him as a romantic lead. Neither of these two actors have done much to prove themselves as big-screen leads, but the Gillian/John story is one of the most interesting love stories in Playing by Heart.

We’re also given a more seasoned perspective of love through the been-through-it-all Sean Connery / Gena Rowlands story. Their characters have been married for 40 years and their banter allows you to believe they’ve been through a lot – and love each other more for it.

Playing by Heart is an excellent example of cramming too much in two hours. The affair between the Madeline Stowe and Anthony Edwards characters and the mother/son story featuring Ellen Burstyn and Jay Mohr are the least interesting, mostly because they have the shortest screen time and are thereby wastes of talent. They are so peripheral to everything else that they could’ve been excised completely, resulting in a tighter film with more time spent on characters we do care about.

Playing by Heart is a story about burgeoning and matured love and the challenges of rekindling or maintaining it, with very nineties references to homosexuality, drugs, STDs, and MCI sprinkled in - all tethered with mixed results to its female cast. Curiously written and directed by Willard Carroll (scribe behind The Brave Little Toaster), it is an uneven effort that is more interesting by its performances, particularly by a young Angelina Jolie. It may not be classic material, but a doting couple could do worse than a night in with these characters.


Should you see it? Rent

Playing by Heart is available on DVD.


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