"Playing by Heart" is one of those movies whose message might be summed up by borrowing a line from Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau: "Eeet's all a part of life's rich pageant." You know, a picture that mixes laughs and tears while working its way toward the little life lessons it wants to impart. As soon as it begins, with Angelina Jolie adapting the famous line about music -- "talking about love is like dancing about architecture" -- we know that we're going to be watching as the characters learn what it is to love: the joy, the tears, the discoveries and the goodbyes. And you might be tempted to sneak out for a few drinks until they get it all sorted out.
Writer-director Willard Carroll (whom I'm always tempted to refer to as Millard Fillmore) employs a structure that cuts from character to character in a series of seemingly self-contained vignettes that finally -- surprise! -- all come together. Each has his or her own neuroses or secret or insecurity to overcome. Watching "Playing by Heart," I got the feeling that Carroll had sat down with a stack of women's magazines, scanned the advice columns and compiled a list of problems to give his characters: loveless marriage; too insecure about self to trust men; opens up too easily; jealous over spouse's old flame. And, like any manipulator at the helm of these life's rich pageant specials, Carroll makes sure to include disease and death. Apparently, unable to decide, he tosses in AIDS and a brain tumor.
I'm not unable to enjoy movies like this. I had a perfectly good time at "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (even though Hugh Grant wound up with the wrong woman), but the director, Mike Newell, was smart enough not to lay on either the homilies or the heartbreak too thick. In "Playing by Heart," when a character announces that she's unable to cry, you know that the ultimate destination on this tour of the heart is Niagara Falls. For a movie that pretends to be an open, understanding examination of love and relationships, its view is pretty traditional. Madeleine Stowe (an actress who works too seldom and here has not nearly enough to do) seeks refuge from her loveless marriage and unimaginative husband in weekly clandestine meetings with her lover (Anthony Edwards). They have a great time in bed and she's content to leave things at that, avoiding expectations and jealousy. But, of course, she has to learn what she's missing, i.e., that sex without love can never be satisfying.
Carroll isn't a complete clod. The movie is smoothly made and a few of his touches -- like revealing the connections between the characters by their separate use of a distinctive slang word -- are clever. I loved it that his women characters are all pet-mad. There are some absolutely magnificent dogs running through "Playing by Heart," and even a one-eyed tiger cat who's a mangy, grumpy-faced charmer. One of the pooches, a mastiff named Barley, provides a great sight gag when Jon Stewart (who must be all of about 5-foot-7) arrives at a date's apartment and the enormous friendly mutt greets him by standing on his hind legs and placing his paws on Stewart's shoulders. Carroll has been lucky enough to get Vilmos Zsigmond to shoot the movie, and he gives the L.A. bars and clubs and cushy houses a nice warm glow. (It's a humane, lived-in West Coast version of the sort of upscale look Woody Allen goes for.) And he's assembled a remarkable cast.
Unfortunately, working with material like this, what the actors avoid doing is more important than what they actually do. As a couple nearing their 40th anniversary, Sean Connery (still the most beautiful man in the movies) and Gena Rowlands (who has developed a relaxed, believable presence) make the prospect of growing old together look pretty damn good. They don't go for the obvious heart tuggers Carroll has provided them with, but I don't particularly relish seeing either one standing ankle-deep in mush and trying to keep their feet dry.
The best scenes are the ones between Gillian Anderson and Stewart. It's a pity that Stewart, one of the few recent comics whose sense of irony isn't inhumanly superior, has wound up in the midst of the sneer fest that is Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." "Playing by Heart" suggests he could be a terrific romantic comic lead. He manages to play a nice guy willing to put up with the insecurities of the woman he's attracted to without seeming like a sap; that he's only willing to put up to a point gives him a nice edge. If there's such a thing as common-sense ardor, Stewart has it. He and Anderson are charming together. There's a sweet moment when he nuzzles her neck in the bathroom after their first night together and she breaks into a grin showing a mouth full of toothpaste. Anderson takes a conceit and makes it into somebody we all know: the smart, capable person hounded by the doubts she does her damnedest not to let show. Anderson captures someone whose braininess has made her a mass of consistent contradictions. She screws up in completely recognizable ways, as Eric Rohmer's characters often do.
There's one other notable performance. As a young scenemaker who keeps landing in one bad relationship after another, Jolie doesn't exactly avoid the pitfalls of the material she's given. But her performance is flabbergasting. Jolie appears to be one of those actors so unembarrassed by emotion that she just leaps right into a part and somehow manages to filter out the calculation (maybe because she doesn't see the calculation). Everything about her -- eyes, cheeks, lips -- seems full, ripe, bursting with energy, and she talks with the speed of a buzzsaw, but a buzzsaw that purrs. The character could easily seem shallow, a club kid who pours out her insides before she thinks, but I kept looking forward to Jolie's scenes whenever she wasn't onscreen. Jolie is a smartass whirligig, her delivery perfectly poised between the heart on her sleeve and the martini in her hand.