On last year’s release schedule, Playing by Heart was called Dancing About Architecture, the idea being, ostensibly, that it’s as impossible to explain love as it is to cha-cha in homage to Frank Lloyd Wright. The new title is, in a post-Seinfeldian way, about nothing. The old title at least provided a blueprint to writer-director Willard Carrol’s precarious construction of linked skits: The plot of this romantic drama is, at heart, a feat of self-conscious structural engineering. (For dramatic waltzing equal to the greatest architectural masterpiece, there’s Max Ophuls’ ”La Ronde.”)
Carrol’s idea is to shuffle struggling couples under an inviting Los Angeles sky. (Master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot Close Encounters of the Third Kind, here makes L.A. look sexy — and also innocent.) An uptight single woman (Gillian Anderson) meets an attractive single man (Jon Stewart) and works hard to screw things up. A glitter-dusted club girl (Angelina Jolie) with a tough hide and a soft center bumps up against a blue-haired club boy (Ryan Phillippe) with a tough hide and a soft center, and they fight their obvious rightness for each other. A tense mother (Ellen Burstyn) flutters awkwardly around her dying gay son (Jay Mohr). An aging couple (Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery) faces a health crisis and relives an old marital crisis. A stuck married couple (Dennis Quaid and Madeleine Stowe) explores separate fantasies.
These pairs of Angelenos wear their quirks so brightly, they might as well be dressed in safety orange. The entertainment, then, comes down to performances by hip actors, enjoying their nicely lit parts. It’s fun to see Anderson acting so self-destructively neurotic. It’s neat to see Connery and pitch-perfect Rowlands purring and growling like the Lion King and Queen. And it’s cool to see Jolie in anything, since, with her high-rising talent, she stands out like a skyscraper in this low-rise landscape. C+
Playing by Heart