PLAYING BY HEART

Directed and written by Willard Carroll

With Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Connery, Anthony Edwards, Angelina Jolie, Jay Mohr, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Quaid, Gena Rowlands, Jon Stewart and Madeleine Stowe

Distributed by Miramax

***


Had PLAYING BY HEART had been released 5 years ago, I probably would have dismissed it as a watered-down Altman imitation. Like many Altman films, it cross-cuts beneath a large array of seemingly disconnected characters, but unlike NASHVILLE or SHORT CUTS, there's no real ambition underneath. Despite the L.A. setting, there's not much sense of place either; these stories could be taking place almost anywhere. Additionally, the revelation of the connections between the characters comes as something of an anti-climax.Nevertheless, there's still something to be said for it: Carroll's screenplay is completely free from the mean-spiritedness that often mars Altman's vision. At a time when cynicism and pessimism have become de rigeur in American cinema, I'm not inclined to sneer at this generosity.

The plot threads that make up PLAYING BY HEART adon't break much ground: an elderly couple who find themselves growing apart, men and women who find trust difficult because they've been betrayed by past lovers. Yet they seem pretty fresh in the hands of Carroll's capable ensemble cast. (The subplot involving a young punk couple is particularly touching.) The film also benefits from its unconventional structure. NY PRESS critic Godfrey Cheshire has suggested that there's something inherently unsatisfying about its all-over-the-map nature, but I had a much different reaction. I was fully engaged by its first 90 minutes, when the cross-cutting generates plenty of mystery, but disappointed with the final half hour. Journeys are often more interesting than destinations, and that's certainly the case here.

Once the characters finally reveal all their secrets, it's difficult not to feel a little cheated. The behavior of Hugh (Dennis Quaid), a compulsive liar who goes out to a different bar every night to chat up a woman (or a drag queen) with a sob story, is intriguing; the motivation behind it isn't. Carroll also has an irritating tendency to tell us what we should be feeling by throwing on music at high volume. (He ruins one intimate scene by using an awful song - it sounds like Meatloaf trying to go "alternative" - that he likes so much he makes us suffer through it again as exit music.) Nevertheless, the first 90 minutes are so appealing that I find these flaws easy to forgive. This is a sentimental film, to be sure, but the sentimentality feels earned.