Video Pick: Playing by Heart
by Lovell Mahan-Moutaw

Slice of life films often turn out to be the best surprises. Who would have thought that Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and, above all, Melanie Griffith could pull off Nobody's Fool as a sweet and entertaining movie. Live Nude Girls with Dana Delaney, Kim Catrall, Olivia D'Abo and Cynthia Stevenson, may be in my top twenty films of all time - a movie about lifelong friends at a bachelorette party that is crazy, funny, poignant, sexy and very smart.

I'd heard of Playing By Heart late last year ... a little spread on it in US magazine and then nothing. It had an interesting cast headed by Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands with Gillian Anderson, Anthony Edwards, Jon Stewart, Dennis Quaid, Ellen Burstyn, Jay Mohr, Ryan Phillipe, Madeline Stowe and Angelina Jolie. I don't know if Miramax didn't push this film because it found a winner in Shakespeare in Love, but because they didn't, I fear many movie lovers might have lost out.

Connery and Rowlands play a couple who have been married for many years, and Rowlands discovers that Connery was, during their marriage, in love with another woman. Anderson and Stewart play two people trying to connect. She's been hurt many times; he is hoping to bring down the walls she has erected to protect her heart. Burstyn and Mohr play a mother and son caught in the son's final hours as he is dying of AIDS. Edwards and Stowe play a couple who are cheating on their spouses. Phillipe and Jolie have the oddest, yet most refreshing, storyline as a couple of club kids who are as obviously not meant for each other as they are just as obviously meant for each other. Finally, Quaid, the odd man out, plays a man that goes from bar to bar telling wild lies to anyone who will listen.

Stowe and Edwards' storyline isn't worth comment. The rest are fantastic. The chemistry sparkles (especially between Connery/Rowlands and Phillipe/Jolie). Truth be told, Jolie is incredibly engaging, nearly stealing the show. What could be cliche (bruised-hearted woman finally meets good man or son dying of AIDS with mother at bedside) is handled not only with style but also substance. It has a lot to do with the acting but much more to do with the writing and directing. I hate to use the word "subtle" when describing anything about a movie, but these actors were led through subdued, almost soft, performances that were delightful to watch. The point of the film wasn't supposed to hit you on the head or slap you across the face or build up to the end to dawn on you with surprised delight - it was meant to just happen, naturally. As it happened to the characters, you were meant to go right along with it.

There are a couple of gimmicks in the film that you may figure out as it unfolds, or they may surprise you. These gimmicks, instead of seeming contrived, keep the film entertaining and fresh throughout.

The beauty of the movie is the end. We've come to know these characters and feel for them and, as everything comes together, we are moved. I haven't been as satisfied with an ending of a film in a long time. In fact, many of the scenes touched me gently, giving me the same sense of peace and excitement that I felt watching the perfection of the picnic scene in Smoke.

Playing By Heart is worth a rental, even a purchase. It is definitely a film you could put in the VCR and watch on a rainy day or a lazy day or on a day you feel like being cheered. It's too bad it wasn't advertised. It deserved to do better.

Lovell Mahan-Moutaw

CineScene 1999