Elevate The Jerry Springer Show a notch or two -- in other words, dispense with the one-legged serial killers who are having sex with their blind mothers, and other such nonsense -- and you've got Willard Carroll's Playing by Heart.
Too harsh a judgment, some will say. After all, this well-meaning, relentlessly sincere ensemble drama shoots for no less a goal than understanding the varieties of love in postmodern urban life -- old love, new love, parental love, red-hot love, and terminally blue love. Carroll, whose previous directorial credits include last year's children's movie Tom's Midnight Garden and the 1991 monster flick The Runestone, has assembled a large cast in which solid veterans such as Gena Rowlands, Ellen Burstyn, and Sean Connery share face time with talented newcomers like Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe. His dialogue is spiced with clever witticisms. And his time-lapse views of Los Angeles, dusk-to-dark-to-dawn in a trice, are beautiful to look at.
But Playing by Heart comes from the same mind-set, if you can call it that, that has turned the American airwaves into a raving public confessional while simultaneously transforming the book trade into the province of every brokenhearted Iowa farm wife and reformed Irish drunk who can haul his or her tear-stained memoirs up to an editor's office. It is self-absorbed. It is self-important. It pretends to be high-minded and authentically felt, but it's drenched in the shameless indulgence of the tell-all talk show. It means to reveal "how we live now" but is hamstrung by the greedy ethic of the self-help movement.
After 20 minutes you might want it to shut up.
In the manner of TV soap opera, certain popular cop shows, and several far superior films by Robert Altman, Carroll leapfrogs among half a dozen seemingly unrelated story lines, illustrating just how tough it is to connect in this big, bad world. Rowlands and Connery are a well-heeled couple on the verge of their 40th anniversary, but they are emotionally threatened by the memory of an old infidelity. Dennis Quaid shows up as a chameleonic loner who lays a new tale of personal woe on a new woman in a new bar every night. The X-Files' Gillian Anderson is a buttoned-up theater director who can't commit when the right man (Jon Stewart) comes along. Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards are hotel-room lovers who check their real lives at the front desk. Jolie is a glib but lonely dance-club babe who discovers a new kind of intimacy with a boy who never dates (Phillippe). Burstyn is a mother exchanging truths with her dying son.
Let's see. In this exploration of love and the human condition, Carroll gives us, among other elements, three troubled marriages, two cases of AIDS, three pampered pet dogs (one of them the size of a racehorse), one drag queen, and a TV chef who drops fish on the kitchen floor but never fluffs a line. Here's news: In the end all the episodes turn out to be related! Of course anyone who's gotten through the fourth grade will have figured that out by the second reel.
What's harder to figure out is the sheer volume of talk we must endure -- ceaseless, wall-to-wall palaver, some of it witty, a lot of it familiar, all of it highly conceptual -- about "relationships." This despite the very caution from which the movie sprang. To hear Carroll tell it, a friend once made the observation, which struck him deeply, that "talking about love is like dancing about architecture." In other words, impossible. Nonetheless, the director made an entire movie in defiance of his friend's profundity. Let us give thanks, at least, that it is no longer titled, as it was in its pre-release days, Dancing About Architecture.
Did I say Jerry Springer? Playing by Heart (not unlike Grand Canyon or The Big Chill or other gabathons perpetrated by Lawrence Kasdan) comes across as Springer for the art-house crowd, for people who have advanced degrees but who aren't much interested in anything beyond their own emotional concerns. Did I say sincere? You could ladle the righteous fellow-feeling and hand-wringing "candor" off this movie's surface like so much grenadine.
Some will find it profound.