Rated R - Running time: 2:01 - Released 1/22/99

Willard Carroll has made a career as a writer/director/producer of children's videos and series like The Brave Little Toaster (1987) and Life With Louie (1995). Playing By Heart, an ensemble piece depicting the relationships of several different couples, is one of his first efforts aimed at adults. It is complex and interesting, and features the talents of several distinguished actors. In its portrait of the different ways we can love each other, it reminded me of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Aspects Of Love, though its plot is nothing like the Broadway musical.

In a series of vignettes interwoven throughout the film, we see the progress of five main relationships: First, there's an aging couple (Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands) who are approaching their 40th anniversary but still have trouble getting over that little indiscretion of his 25 years ago. Second, a young gay man in the final stages of AIDS (Jay Mohr) is finally having a real heart-to-heart talk with his mother (Ellen Burstyn). Third, a young man (Ryan Phillippe) and a young woman (Angelina Jolie) try to establish a relationship in the club scene, despite the fact that he has a deep dark secret keeping him from being completely open with her. Fourth, a younger married couple (Dennis Quaid and Madeleine Stowe) try to hold their troubled marriage together despite the fact that he is an alcoholic who likes to hit on women in bars and she is having an animalistic affair with another man (Anthony Edwards). And finally, a successful businesswoman (Gillian Anderson) who wants a lover but has been hurt too many times, and an architect (Jon Stewart) who is an all-around nice guy, get together and work through her fear of intimacy.

This film is generally enjoyable and touching in places, and features mostly good performances (with a few exceptions), but tries to cram too much information into the allotted time. Covering this topic properly, for 5 separate relationships, would almost require a mini-series. The consequence is that none of them are really delved into with any detail, and so they feel simplified. Over a period of a few days, major issues are dealt with, problems are resolved, psychological breakthroughs are achieved that, in real life, would probably take months or years.

Ryan Phillippe, though he tries, is no more convincing in this film than he was in Cruel Intentions. His relationship with Jolie is good when they are kidding around, but terribly pretentious during sad moments. Connery and Rowlands are the most comfortable together; I enjoy seeing him take a break from the shoot-em-ups and do some real acting. Quaid seems confused throughout; perhaps it's part of his drunk act.

As one would expect, these people are all connected somehow, and we don't find out exactly how until the end. The lack of time gives the last reel a fakey, tied-up-with-a-bow feeling, but good performances and a good script make this an enjoyable little romance. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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