Heart Failure

Here's the first great movie mystery of the year: How did second-time director Willard Carroll line up the likes of Sean Connery, Ellen Burstyn, Gena Rowlands, Dennis Quaid, Madeline Stowe and Anthony Edwards, among others, for his new film, Playing By Heart (which he also wrote)? The mystery deepens when you learn that his first effort was a humble horror flick known as The Runestone. And it deepens further when you see how painfully thin many of the characters are, and how annoying Carroll's guiding conceit is.

He starts off with a large handful of apparently unrelated L.A. stories; Quaid plays Hugh, a seeming madman who bursts into a string of bars where he sucks down martinis and pours out his soul, along with a series of outrageous tales, to dumbstruck but sympathetic women. (Another casting mystery: Natassja Kinski is on hand to merely play one of Hugh's listeners.)

Connery and Rowlands play a bickering couple on the verge of their 40th anniversary and his death by brain tumor. Stowe and Edwards play an adulterous couple who meet for no-strings-attached sex.

We get a few minutes of Quaid, then a few of Connery, followed by Stowe, and so on. Even though it doesn't play very well, it may have been Carroll's method that reeled in the adventurous stars. In theory, it sounds like an approach Alan Rudolph or Robert Altman might use. Or one that they already have used, as in Altman's Short Cuts. But Playing By Heart suffers mightily in the comparison, because Carroll's story lines are, with a few exceptions, either underdeveloped, derivative or both.

For example, we know nothing about Stowe's Gracie except that she's unhappily married. So her loveless affair with Edwards's Roger is emotionally neutral. In fact, it's not even that. The affair simply doesn't exist on the screen. And we know even less about Roger, except that he wishes he could have more from her than sex. These are characters stuck in the first step of their development. And though we revisit them four or five times, we only get more of the same, until the film's finale, and by then we're well past the point of caring.

Roughly the same is true of Gillian Anderson's Meredith, an emotionally blocked theater director who stands fearfully on the edge of a relationship with Jon Stewart's Trent, an architect whose initial attraction to Meredith plays most unconvincingly. She falls down. He asks her to dinner when he picks her up. (Pun intended? I don't know.) She says yes. Then her emotional blockage is much talked about, but never explored. Trent's even worse. He barely exists even as an idea.

And while some characters and stories need more, there's plenty of cutting that Carroll could have done. The story could lose the Trent/Meredith subplot and never feel it, and its AIDS-death thread is altogether extraneous. So crowded is the plot, in fact, that there are actually two AIDS stories here, which is one too many.

That's not to say the entire movie is a bust. One of the story lines, in which a young would-be actress, Joan (Angelina Jolie), meets and falls for enigmatic and distant young Keenan (Ryan Phillipe), is the only story that really feels lived in, and it's a knockout.

Joan begins as a familiar type -- dashing in her retro outfits, too cool to cry -- but as she is drawn toward the young man who attracts her without seeming to want to, her shell cracks, and she opens up to love in truly thrilling fashion. As Joan, Jolie hits full stride fairly late in the game (she's the only character who seems changed in every scene), but watching her grow, inch by inch, is quite a pleasure. Joan is far too real for the rest of the film. Phillipe is almost as good as the tragic young man. His emotional reticence is far more real than either Gracie's or Meredith's. I would have very gladly watched an entire movie about them.

At the film's grand finale, the loose ends get tied up in a painfully tight knot. We're supposed to ooh and aah as the various relationships are finally made clear, but the reasonably astute viewer will be well ahead of the story-telling curve. There was no sorrow at seeing Playing By Heart end, but I'm fired up about the beginning of Jolie's career. I hope she's working on something right now.

Playing By Heart.
Rated R.
Directed by Willard Carroll. With Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, Dennis Quaid, Madeline Stowe, Anthony Edwards, Gillian Anderson, Angelina Jolie and Jon Stewart.


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