Turn Back The Clock

Movie Review

Playing by Heart

Distributed By: Mirimax Films

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            I’m not much into romantic movies.  I can watch them, no problem.  But I don’t weep over them nor do I usually have the desire to watch them over and over again.  I’ve seen the ultimate in romantic flicks – Dirty Dancing – and yet, the only reason I’ve seen it so many times is that it’s been played so many times on television and there has been nothing else to watch.  I like the movie, don’t get me wrong, and though I enjoyed the romance in the film, I really loved the dance scenes in the film…and the fact that Patrick Swayze was pretty damn hot in that movie. 

            So, okay, I’m not that into romance films…and yet, I do have one romance film that I have watched so many times on VHS that I had to buy it on DVD – the tape had worn out.  Playing by Heart is a romantic comedy that surprised me when I first saw it a decade ago.  I had rented the film because there were so many terrific actors in the ensemble cast that I figured the movie had to be good.  I never expected this movie to have such an effect on me that I would want to watch it over and over and over again.  I’ve watched it so often that I could probably recite most of the lines from memory.

            Playing by Heart began production under a very different name – Dancing about Architecture.  The title comes from a line in the movie in which the character explains that talking about love is like dancing about architecture – it can’t be done, but the character is willing to try.  I would say that dancing about architecture would be rather complicated and so are the relationships of the various characters we meet in this film.

            We begin with Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery).  Hannah is a television chef and Paul help to head up her production company.  Just as they are about to celebrate their fortieth anniversary, they are given some rather shocking news - Paul is dying.  This news, coupled with the upcoming celebration of their nuptials brings about a discussion in which the two learn some very surprising things about each other.

            We also meet Gracie (Madeleine Stowe), a married woman involved in an affair with a married man (Anthony Edwards).  She isn’t looking for love, just a sexual relationship with no ties outside of the bedroom.  Meredith (Gillian Anderson) is not looking for love either.  In fact, she is running away from it as fast as she can, much to the chagrin of Trent (Jon Stewart), the architect that has been pursuing her ever since he met her at the bookstore he has been renovating.  Joan (Angelina Jolie) is a young actress chasing after Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), a young man looking for anything but a relationship.  There’s Mildred (Ellen Burstyn), a mother caring for her dying son (Jay Mohr) who has just learned that he was involved in a long relationship with another man who has also died from AIDS.  And then there’s Hugh (Dennis Quaid).  Hugh’s the conundrum of the film.  We don’t really know who he is right away, because every time we see him, he’s pretending to be someone else.

            Playing by Heart is written incredibly well, with wonderfully witty dialogue between each of the characters.  As you watch, you find yourself hanging on to every line of banter, loving the quips and “exchanges of vitriol”, as Paul so elegantly puts it, throughout the movie.  You find yourself completely invested in each of the characters in the film.  As you watch the movie, you discover some similarities between the characters until finally, towards the end of the film, you come to realize that each of the characters is connected to the other in some way, shape or form.

            That’s one of the things I love about this film.  Each of these characters have such strength separately, but when you discover that they are all connected somehow, the characters are given that much more depth.  You begin to understand why they act the way they do simply through their connection to other characters.  Then, you want to watch the film again to find the little hidden clues you missed that might have told you the connection between one or more characters hidden throughout the film.  I still surprise myself finding new clues that I missed during the previous times I’ve watched the film.

            Whoever was in charge of the casting of this film did an incredible job.  The chemistry between the characters was amazingly apparent.  Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands truly seem like a couple who has been married for a remarkable forty years.  The banter and occasional barbs between them are incredibly believable.  Something else – this movie made me realize how incredibly sexy Sean Connery is, an observation that surprised me given the fact that he’s old enough to be my grandfather.  There’s just something about him that seemed to get better with age. 

            I hadn’t seen Gillian Anderson in anything but the X-Files and, even though her character made you want to strangle her sometimes, it was refreshing to see her in a role other than that of the sensible Agent Scully.  Although I have never seen Jon Stewart as more than a stand-up comic, I actually enjoyed him in this film.  His line delivery required the perfect timing that any good stand-up comic has to have in order to succeed. 

            Besides Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands, I believe that the best lines in the movie were given to Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe.  The clever banter between these two characters speaks to the younger audience.  The idea of the girl actively pursuing a boy who seems interested but keeps pushing the girl away has been done before.  But as you watch the movie and realize that there are reasons for why each character acts the way they do, you start to wonder what lies in these characters past.  I have seen reviews of this film in which the reviewers wish that this movie was entirely about Jolie and Phillipe’s characters.  I won’t go that far, but I will say that their story was very engaging.

            Ellen Burstyn and Jay Mohr were terrific as loving mother and dying son.  I have only seen Mohr in a few movies / television shows and I have never been a fan of his acting.  However, he did a rather admirable job in Playing by Heart and I have no complaints.  Where my complaints do lie are mostly with Madeleine Stowe, Anthony Edwards and Dennis Quaid.  I’ve long loved watching Anthony Edwards perform in movies like Top Gun and on television in ER.  The character he portrayed in this film was actually annoying.  His affair with Madeleine Stowe’s character was wholly unbelievable.  And Stowe’s character was similarly annoying.  As for Dennis Quaid – well…I don’t want to give away too much of the film for those who haven’t seen it, but I like him better as the people he was pretending to be rather than the person he actually was.

            Now, as I said in the beginning of this review, I recently purchased Playing by Heart on DVD thanks to having worn out my VHS version.  I found it rather unfortunate that there were no extras on the DVD version.  Even the VHS version had an extra – a music video of Lover’s Will, a terrific love song by Bonnie Raitt set to scenes from the movie.  This song, and Edward Kowalczyk’s (Live) song, Walk into This Room, were my favorite songs in the whole movie.  I looked forward to seeing this video again on the DVD, but alas, there are absolutely no extras!  I find this hard to stomach since, with the obvious chemistry between the characters, I assumed that there would be some great outtakes.  It would also have been nice to hear what the director and writer of the film had to say.

            That being said, I still wouldn’t trade in my DVD of Playing by Heart for any amount of money!  This is one movie I plan on watching quite a few more times in the future.  Check it out some time.  Whether you’re a hopeless romantic or just someone looking for a decent romantic comedy, you won’t be disappointed.


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