Playing by Heart - * * *

Playing by Heart is a film that would like to think of itself as an intricate puzzle, whose pieces smoothly slide into place as the film progresses. However, as a puzzle, Playing By Heart is fairly simple. Luckily, observing the artwork of the individual pieces is more than enough reward.

Playing by Heart interweaves six distinct storylines. At first, there seems to be no connection between them, except for involving people, love, and relationships. Yet, as the film progresses, it is obvious that all six storylines are going to intertwine by the end. The matter of how becomes relatively obvious well before the final act.

Hugh (Dennis Quaid) has a penchant for wandering forlornly into bars and unravelling his depressing life story to a complete stranger. Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) and Roger (Anthony Edwards) have a fulfilling sex life. Too bad they’re both married to other people. Paul (Sean Connery) and Hannah (Gena Rowlands) are a long-married couple facing a troublesome future, and an even more troublesome past. Joan (Angelina Jolie) is on the relationship rebound, and is determined to win the affections of Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), a self-obsessed boy who doesn’t date. Mark (Jay Mohr) is dying of AIDS, and has only his mother Mildred (Ellen Burstyn) for comfort. And finally, Meredith (Gillian Anderson) has been burned before, and wants nothing more to do with men. However, that doesn’t stop the friendly Trent (Jon Stewart) from trying.

Even with six plotlines in the air, Playing By Heart never lets one drop. Whenever one plotline starts to sag, another deftly steps in to take its place. And yet, even with all the switching and swapping, the film is never confusing. And, somehow, Playing By Heart avoids the pitfall of other films with ensemble storylines: making a few of the plots much more interesting than the others. Even the film’s weakest plot (the languid affair between Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards) never gets completely boring.

The movie is not as skillful, however, when trying to be spontaneous. Every move of Playing By Heart seems carefully calculated, and when it tries to surprise the audience, the effort just falls flat. Nowhere is this more true than at the film’s finale, when everything just happens to neatly fall together.

The pair with the best chemistry in the film is easily Connery and Rowlands. They settle so deeply in their roles, that it truly seems they’ve been together for a long time. Anjelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe are a close second, and certainly have the plotline with the most energy. Throughout the whole film, there’s nary a poor performance to be seen.

Though at times it borders on being contrived, on the whole, Playing By Heart is a touching rumination on the various flavors of love.

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