A Thousand Broken Hearts

A Thousand Broken Hearts

There’s a catchy, memorable line early in the new movie Playing by Heart that goes like this: “Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.” In other words, it can’t be done. You have to experience love, not analyze it.

That line is the one most likely to stick with you, which is probably why writer-director Willard Carroll originally titled the film Dancing About Architecture . The film’s benign new name is so pointless, nobody can remember it. I can’t imagine mobs of people flocking to something called Playing by Heart . I hope I’m wrong. It’s a mature film with an astoundingly impressive cast that deserves an appreciative audience. The complex story line weaves in and out of the lives of a group of people searching for love in relationships that have become painfully and humorously complicated. Within the infrastructure of their tangled meetings, breakups and reunions, it isn’t immediately clear how they become related to each other, but hang in there for the ride and you’re in for some crisp surprises.

Gena Rowlands, who does not, for a change, have to hold a film together all by herself, plays a three-time Emmy award-winning television personality with a popular country-kitchen cooking show. Sean Connery plays her loyal and devoted husband who has a secret in his past. Now that he has a brain tumor, his wife of 40 years discovers the marriage wasn’t as perfect as she imagined. On the eve of renewing their vows, with friends and relatives arriving for the celebration, they’ve got problems to work out. Watching two of the greatest and most-beautiful-to-look-at pros in film go at each other with hammer and tongs is one of the most entertaining events in recent memory. Why hasn’t somebody teamed them up before?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Los Angeles and Chicago, other scenarios are unraveling. Mildred (Ellen Burstyn) arrives at the deathbed of her son Mark, an AIDS victim (Jay Mohr) who has kept the dark side of his life to himself. Playing the truth game, in a brave effort to wrap up unfinished business and make up for lost time, they find some truths unbearable. Back in L.A., Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) and Roger (Anthony Edwards) are two married people who are cheating on their spouses, trying to maintain an emotionally unattached, unshared, unromantic, purely sexual relationship without guilt or obligation. It’s not working. Then there is Meredith (Gillian Anderson, free from the X-Files shackles at last and proving she can really act), a divorced writer who is so emotionally blocked she thinks all men are “in love with somebody else or gay or crazy” and Trent (Jon Stewart), a nice-guy architect with a great sense of humor who is none of the above but who literally knocks himself out to earn her trust. Hugh (Dennis Quaid, in a real departure) is a miserable, neglected husband with so many insecurities he invents a fresh and colorful identity with a new set of neurotic problems for each woman he meets. Completing the puzzle, Joan (delectably played by the cool, spicy Angelina Jolie) is a hippie actress so battered by abusive relationships she determines to devote all of her affection to her scruffy one-eyed cat until she finds and falls for fragile, tortured Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), an H.I.V.-positive loser who can’t be intimate with anybody. What a group of refugees from the pages of Soap Opera Digest ! And what a first-rate cast to bring them alive!

O.K., so it sounds like 10 weeks of As the World Turns or an episode of Sally Jessy Raphael (“Suicidal depression is all yours. Next Sally!”) but trust me when I tell you Playing by Heart is a wise, uplifting, entertaining film made up of small, lovely moments of revelation about a diverse group of contemporary, self-styled urban neurotics who have put love in a holding pattern and need help from flight control. Terrified of commitment, intimacy, vulnerability, sharing, or losing control of their self-protective shields, they’re all people you’ve known-at work, on the subway and in bed. The ways in which their lives intersect in the final scene provide one revelation after another, and all is explained, cleverly, niftily and logically.

While you’re waiting for those final solutions, you’ll find yourself treated to some of the most fertile ensemble work in ages, as well as dialogue that is consistently sharp. I had to laugh when one character discussed age (“I’m 28 years old-that’s in real years, not Heather Locklear years”) and I will not soon forget the sight of Dennis Quaid-a pitiful, boozy, bronzed etching of macho confusion-concocting a whale of a sympathetic story to unload on the broad shoulders of a drag queen. The drag queen listens, enthralled, then responds with “That one’s older than Lauren Bacall.”

For a man best known as the writer-producer of such TV fare as The Monkey Prince and The Return of Mombi , Willard Carroll has pulled off quite a pleasant package. My reaction to Playing by Heart , dull title aside, reminds me of Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth , who awoke after a memory-blotting night of drugs and alcohol, donned her reading glasses to inspect the naked body of Chance Wayne in bed beside her and said, “I have seen better, but God knows, I have also seen worse.”