A character-driven drama about the search for love and intimacy in the late '90s, "Playing by Heart" is filmmaking by rote. A stellar cast and articulate script notwithstanding, pic fails to connect emotionally with its audience, which perhaps says more about the difficulty of making empathetic attachments than writer-director Willard Carroll intended.

A character-driven drama about the search for love and intimacy in the late ’90s, “Playing by Heart” is filmmaking by rote. A stellar cast and articulate script notwithstanding, pic fails to connect emotionally with its audience, which perhaps says more about the difficulty of making empathetic attachments than writer-director Willard Carroll intended. And while the current theatrical marketplace is too crowded to allow it much notice, the film should fare somewhat better on video.

Still, at least its current title is less alienating than its former unfortunate handle, “Dancing About Architecture.” The quip “talking about love is like dancing about architecture” inspired Carroll to pen this story about a bunch of Angelenos looking for love in all the wrong — and ultimately right — places. It’s also a phrase that could have served as a warning: Carroll’s characters spend so much time talking, albeit intelligently, that the connections they make seem peculiarly synthetic.

Pointedly identifying the film’s central flaw, a love-shy theater director, Meredith (Gillian Anderson) scoffs to a would-be suitor (Jon Stewart), “I don’t want all of this calculated artificiality.”

Although artificiality seems to permeate so many of the relationships, the characters gamely pursue romance in various ways: Meredith, the director, and Trent, an architect, have a couple of misbegotten dates. Joan (Angelina Jolie) a struggling actress, doggedly chases young Keenan (Ryan Phillippe) from one nightclub to another.

Meanwhile, the married Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) trysts with her equally married lover (Anthony Edwards) in a high-rise hotel. Cooking show creators Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) find their 40-year marriage threatened by surprise revelations. And Hugh (Dennis Quaid) drifts aimlessly among bars, recounting sad stories and tall tales to confused strangers (Patricia Clarkson and Nastassja Kinski). Elsewhere, Mark (Jay Mohr) lies dying of AIDS in a hospital, while his long-suffering mother Mildred (Ellen Burstyn) keeps vigil.

Production notes are emphatic that critics reveal neither the threads linking these characters nor the surprise ending that ties those threads much too neatly together. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon, however, to figure out what those connections are, as key character traits and bits of dialogue reveal crucial information. But Carroll’s insistence on keeping the links hidden till the end has the tinny feel of gimmickry.

With the exception of the elders in the ensemble, many of the younger players seem so ill-suited that one can scarcely believe these people can stand each other, let alone fall in love. Joan, for instance, is a narcissistic motor-mouth who never lets Keenan get a word in edgewise.

Meredith is so wary of intimacy that she spews a succession of barbs at Trent, yet he is, inconceivably, unde-terred. And Gracie and Roger claim to be sexually compatible, but you’d never know it to watch them. Only in the interactions between Hannah and Paul and between Mildred and Mark is there genuine pathos, but that’s because Rowlands, Connery and Burstyn (and a surprisingly versatile Mohr) bring a level of craft and a depth of experience to their parts the others lack.

In the other cases, Carroll’s dialogue feels too glib to be convincing, resulting in scenes that have the inauthentic and very much unfinished quality of an acting class workshop.

At times it seems as if Carroll is aiming somewhere for territory between Robert Altman and Neil Simon, but the actual destination is far afield of both.

Not unlike the relationships themselves, the look and feel of the film have a similarly distancing effect on the viewer. Vilmos Zsigmond’s lensing is so glossy, Melissa Stewart’s production design so manicured and Charlie Daboub’s art direction so meticulously precise that the interiors often evoke the polished look of an Ikea catalog. Music by John Barry, a veteran of James Bond film scores, often seems obtrusive and overloud.

Playing By Heart

Production

A Miramax Films release of an Intermedia Films presentation in association with Morpheus of a Hyperion production. Produced by Willard Carroll, Meg Liberman, Tom Wilhite. Executive producers, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Paul Feldsher. Co-producers, David Witz, Kurt Albrecht. Directed, written by Willard Carroll.

Crew

Camera, Vilmos Zsigmond; editor, Pietro Scalia; music, John Barry; music supervisor, Tim Sexton; production designer, Melissa Stewart; art director, Charlie Daboub; set decorator, Patte Strong, Mark Poll; costume designer, April Ferry; sound, Arthur Rochester; associate producer, Kacy Andrews; assistant director, Cas Donovan; casting, Meg Liberman. Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, Dec. 28, 1998. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 121 MIN.

With

Meredith - Gillian Anderson Joan - Angelina Jolie Gracie - Madeleine Stowe Roger - Anthony Edwards Keenan - Ryan Phillippe Hannah - Gena Rowlands Paul - Sean Connery Hugh - Dennis Quaid Mildred - Ellen Burstyn Mark - Jay Mohr Trent - Jon Stewart Allison - Patricia Clarkson Melanie - Nastassja Kinski
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