`Playing by Heart' has star power but no pulse

Movie review

January 22, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Playing by Heart" is "Beverly Hills 90210" for baby boomers, the kind of all-star roundup we usually associate with such camp classics as "The Poseidon Adventure" and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

But "Playing by Heart" is no disaster epic, nor is it a comedy. In fact, it may best be described as a mystery: Why on earth would such talents as Gena Rowlands, Sean Connery and Ellen Burstyn, not to mention a first-rate creative team behind the camera, stoop to something this trivial?

This insipid Tinseltown melodrama, told in round-robin style, was originally titled "Dancing About Architecture," which should clue filmgoers into its arty pretensions. And the new title should clue them into the movie's essentially sentimental core, despite a script full of pseudo-intellectual babble.

The story, such as it is, traces several nights in the lives of Los Angeles citizens, all of whom live in well-appointed L.A. style. Media couple Hannah and Paul (Rowlands and Connery) re-examine their 40-year marriage in the plush comfort of a Spanish mansion; tetchy theater director Meredith (Gillian Anderson) works out her relationship-phobia in a nifty 1940s bungalow; lusty Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) has hot sex in a four-star hotel. Even the film's bohemian waif, Joan (Angelina Jolie), lives in a hovel of distinctive flair.

One out of three characters in "Playing by Heart" suffers from some incurable disease; the rest are coping bravely and terribly attractively. This is the kind of movie where characters say things like, "We're all damaged goods but I know that I can love," and where they all end up somehow connected.

"Playing by Heart," which was written and directed by Willard Carroll, will no doubt remind many filmgoers of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," which also traced the intersecting lives of Angelenos. But any similarities stop at the films' shared conceit.

"Playing by Heart" is a disheartening example of how episodic, prime-time-style storytelling has taken a stranglehold on Hollywood films, even at their most "independent."

`Playing by Heart'

Starring Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Connery, Angelina Jolie, Dennis Quaid, Gena Rowlands, Jon Stewart, Madeleine Stowe

Directed by Willard Carroll

Released by Miramax Films

Rated R (language and sexuality)

Running time: 120 minutes

Sun score: *

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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