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[whitespace] Playing by Heart
Peter Sorel/SMPSP

Color Me Trapped: Ryan Phillippe and Angelina Jolie are stuck in 'Playing by Heart.'

You can't say that the soapy title doesn't give you fair warning about 'Playing by Heart'

By Richard von Busack

FIVE COUPLES. One AIDS death, one brain tumor, one infidelity (actual), one infidelity (unacted-upon). One HIV-positive character, who haunts the discos acting like Heathcliff on the moors ("I'm damaged goods!"). One man who haunts the bars, telling strangers phony-baloney stories. One cringing critic suffering through this borscht. You wanted Robert Altman, you'd settle for Alan Rudolph, you get director Willard Carroll, who has assembled a stellar cast and crew to frame his clichés in Playing by Heart. How did it happen?

Playing by Heart was previously titled Dancing About Architecture. What the new title lacks in bizarreness it keeps in the quality of warning away an audience. Carroll's soap opera with pretensions boasts some remarkable performers; it sports lush, exotic vistas of L.A. photographed by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. A John Barry score accompanies it, and Sean Connery wastes some of his precious time in it. How did this film happen? Carroll, previously a director of British fantasy films for children, is trying to graduate to more adult material, but his view of adult behavior is like a child's fantasy of how adults relate.

A group of seemingly unrelated characters reveal their relationships to each other. Let's start with Connery, since he'll be the box-office draw. Connery plays Paul, a TV producer doomed with a brain tumor, although he manifests no symptoms. Puttering around his desk, Hannah (Gena Rowlands), Paul's wife of 40 years, finds a photograph of a woman Paul had a serious crush on some 20 years ago. Hannah, still angry over the matter, is grilling her husband about the affair. Paul offers a novel explanation for the dalliance: the long-gone woman helped him reclaim his self-love, convincing him that he was "worth loving." How long has it been since Connery worried about being beloved? Answer that question, and you'll see why Connery looks sort of shame-faced reciting his dialogue.

Cut to the other stories: (1) Madeleine Stowe in a sex-only affair with Anthony Edwards. (2) Angelina Jolie roaming around L.A. discos, martini in hand, stalking a reluctant club kid named Keenan (Ryan Phillippe). (3) Gillian Anderson, a theater director, wanting a love relationship but being so terrified about making herself vulnerable that she pushes all men away. (4) Ellen Burstyn as a mom sitting by the bedside of her son, who is in the last stages of AIDS. (5) Dennis Quaid as a charming liar stalking the bars of L.A., in a pastiche of Keith Carradine's escaped loon in Alan Rudolph's Choose Me. The varied cast turns out to be related, to no surprise.

The postmodern structure doesn't hide the old-fashioned simple-mindedness of Playing by Heart, the TV-quality slushy dialogue, the degrading writing of the female characters. The most interesting character is a bit-part transvestite (Maya Lann), who turns out to be too smart to stick around in this film. If only Jolie had followed Lann offstage. Jolie's freshness, sexiness and quirkiness will be a present to the right director; this young performer needs something better to sink her teeth into than Carroll's moldy tripe.

Playing by Heart (R; 120 min.), directed and written by Willard Carroll, photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond and starring Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, Gillian Anderson and Angelina Jolie.

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From the January 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro.

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