Playing by Heart [1998]

This amiably amorphous comedy-drama about a myriad of articulate and witty people pondering the meaning of love was originally titled Dancing About Architecture. As one of the lovelorn puts it, in trying to explain the elusive nature of desire, "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture." However, with the way the characters in Willard Carroll's film talk, it sounds like they could dance a samba around Frank Lloyd Wright. This undiscovered gem doesn't have a particular destination in mind, as it weaves in and out of the stories of its high-profile ensemble, but it does offer some hilarious, sharp dialogue and quiet surprises. Carroll focuses his film on four couples, all in one way or another battling with the problems of relationships, ranging from long-marrieds (Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery) to Gen-X club-hoppers (Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe). Ostensibly, part of the film is invested in the mystery of how all these characters are interrelated, but keen viewers will be able to discern the connections among everyone. It's the uniformly excellent performances, though, that make Playing by Heart compulsively watchable. Most striking, surprisingly enough, are Jolie and Phillippe, the youngest members of the cast who reveal heretofore hidden depths of talent. Jolie in particular increases her already-soaring stock as an actress. Equally impressive are Gillian Anderson and Jon Stewart, who transcend their yuppie personas in their awkward enactment of the timeless dating rituals. Other cast members, including Dennis Quaid, Anthony Edwards, Ellen Burstyn, Jay Mohr, and the always luminous Madeleine Stowe, are quite good, though saddled with story lines that are occasionally less than compelling. The only complaint you'll have is that once everyone's connections are revealed, you'll wish this cast had more of an opportunity to interact. The journey toward the film's bittersweet end, however, is marvelous in and of itself. --Mark Englehart

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