"Playing by Heart" is movie with a very cute and promising premise: four couples, seemingly unrelated, each deal with their relationship problems. In the end, it is discovered that they're all connected in some way. Here's a plot that's refreshing, somewhat original, and has a potential for greatness. For once, a movie has more dialogue than it has special effects and gratuitous nudity. But "Playing" is a few olives short of a vodka martini.
The least they could have done was keep us interested in the characters long enough for the big "surprise" at the end, which the preview for the movie all but gave away, so I was probably at a disadvantage. Being mysterious is fine, but you've got to have enough punch to keep the movie running at a fair pace. A damn shame, because aside from a few subtle hints like "angerball," there really wasn't anything that gave the ending away.
Of all the couples, only Angelina Jolie and Ryan Philippe's Joan and Keenan have really grabbed my attention. Even though Philippe was stiff as a stick and Jolie didn't really "grow into" her character until the movie was well underway. And even then it felt like they were reciting their lines. But at any rate, the characters were the most developed: Here's a guy who seems to have a lot of emotional baggage hidden inside, and a girl who's very unabashed about expressing her feelings. I found myself wondering whatever happened to Keenan, and whether this odd couple would ever get together (whether I thought they were right for each other, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter). In contrast, I didn't really care for the other couples. Jon Stewart's Trent was played and written as a slick, unlikable sleazebag, and Gillian Anderson's Meredith was a character who developed solely out of her past (her unhappy marriage with Jay Mohr's Mark, which we will deal with later). Throughout the whole courtship the problem was that Meredith supposedly had too many walls around her; well, those walls came tumbling down a little too soon, too conveniently. Gillian Anderson's mellow, stoic performance as Meredith once again confirmed my suspicion that she's most cut out for the role of Dana Scully. Or was it because Meredith was too similar to Scully? I hope it is the latter. I never really understood Madeline Stowe / Anthony Edwards / Dennis Quaid triangle, partly because the film didn't take enough time to explain their relationship. The same with Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands. I'm not saying that the explanation was incomplete, or the characters any less deserving of sympathy--but that we were given too little to go on. We've just gotten to know these characters at a certain turning point in their lives, and it's just too bad that we aren't given the chance to get more acquainted with them. The whole other sideline with Jay Mohr and Ellen Burstyn seemed unnecessary; sure, it made for a great story, contributed a few good scenes, gave a few surprises at the end, but it had nothing to do with the theme of the movie (dancing about architecture, so to speak). All in all, it was disappointing that only two of the eight main characters succeeded in "being"; the rest in comparison seemed like mere paper dolls cut out to serve the story's purpose. Part of the reason is because they were played with so little conviction: a well-developed character needs good lines, good scenarios, and a good actor; here the dialogue seemed to shoulder too much of the burden. We were constantly being hit over-the-head with monologues about the character's problems, without a lot of acting to back it up. The big obstacle: making the characters three-dimensional before the big revelation deadline. It doesn't matter if a particular stage of the development was too hasty, we have to move on because they all need to be happily together by the end of two hours. It's a shame to see how often an assembly of great actors go to waste.
It might be confusing if I said that what could have made this story more interesting is where the movie failed. The premise was great: brief glimpses into the lives of couples that we run into almost everyday, gradually getting to know these couples, then reaching some sort of a conclusion. However, everything seemed to work against it. The snippets started to become annoying when after each one we felt confused and apathetic rather than interested. There were a few scenes that were noteworthy, but the movie as a whole seemed disjointed. I don't want to discourage the obviously very talented writer of this story by saying (like he'll ever read this) this, but I think the movie could have been better with a few fix-ups. As much as I rant about my disappoint, the movie was satisfying in its attempt at deciphering the world of love and make us sigh with contentment with its sappy-sweet ending.
"You can't treat people like you treat people and then say something adorable like that."
Rating: C+ (First viewing, 1/28/99)
*Highlight: Gillian Anderson giving Sean Connery a kiss. Wasn't that wonderful?