Playing by Heart (1998)


Playing by Heart, an anthology romantic-dramedy that premiered in 1998, four years before Love, Actually would go on to do much the same thing but to wider audience acclaim and release. It has a great late-90s soundtrack, is a decently filmed adaptation of a stageplay (in as much as they make an effort in the cinematography field, rather than just film a boringly framed rendition of the material), and has a great cast behind it, many of whom are still prominent celebrities today. It should have been a bigger film than it was, and I can’t for the life of me think why its fallen into relative obscurity.

The theme of the film is love. Romantic love, maternal love, familial love. It doesn’t bring much to the table that hasn’t been brought before, but it does it with witty and erudite characters, awash in a sea of first-world angst.

The plots!

Paul and Hannah

(Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands)

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Paul has recently been diagnosed with cancer, but refuses to discuss it with his wife Hannah, despite their forty years of marriage. She’s worried about him and wants to talk and plan for the inevitable, but he’s having none of that, while they’ve both got their 40th anniversary to plan, and she’s got her cooking show to host. It also doesn’t help that she discovers he still pines for an old friend Wendy, and she begins to suspect they had an affair.

Joan and Keenan

(Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillipe)

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Joan is a vivacious, outgoing, maybe-drinks-a-bit-too-much wild child. Keenan is a semi-emotionless loner who doesn’t like to give much about himself away, to the point of being cold and aloof (which is conveniently summed up as “bored”, a real stretch for Phillipe’s acting at the time). They meet in a nightclub while Joan quite publicly breaks up with her boyfriend over a payphone, then begin to see more of each other, as Joan tries to get him to open up, and he keeps on rebuking her despite his obvious interest.

Meredith and Trent

(Gillian Anderson and Jon Stewart)

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Meredith is a highly strung woman who has a play opening soon, and meets Trent, an architect who feels bad that an unsecured bookshelf fell on her at his construction site. They start dating, and while they’re both clearly interested in each other, she has some hang-ups about men and dating and keeps second guessing everything Trent does, despite him not doing anything to set off her neuroses.

Mark and Mildred

(Jay Mohr and Ellen Burstyn)

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Mark is dying of AIDS, and Mildred flies to his hospital room in Chicago to be with her son in his final days. With his impending death rendering any social graces as kind of moot, they bond over their lives, finally speaking openly and honestly to each other without holding back the things that people “shouldn’t say” .

Gracie and Roger

(Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards)

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She’s a cold bitch. He’s a wet blanket. They’re married, but not to each other. And they’re having an affair. (more on this one later)


(Dennis Quaid)

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Hugh turns up at a bar one night. He approaches a woman on her own, and proceeds to ruin her night by telling her how he killed his wife and son by drink driving and hitting their car. Hugh turns up at a bar one night. He approaches a woman on her own, and proceeds to ruin her night by angrily bemoaning his wife leaving him for a corporate rival, and taking the kids and the dogs. Hugh turns up at a bar one night. He’s approached by a drag queen, and proceeds to tell her all about how he’s cheated on his wife…with her brother. You don’t find out what’s going on with Hugh or why it matters until you find out how all the characters fit together.

So, how do all these characters fit in together?

Theoretically, this is meant to be something of a surprise in the movie, but I think it actually works better if you know ahead of time. Nevertheless, spoiler alert coming up.

They’re all part of the same family – Hannah and Paul are Joan, Meredith and Gracie’s parents, Hugh is married to Gracie, and Meredith used to be married to literal boy-next-door Mark, and is still close with Mildred who is Hannah and Paul’s neighbour. Keenan and Trent are the romantic interests, and Roger is the minister Gracie’s hired to officiate the upcoming wedding anniversary.

The reason I say it works better knowing this ahead of schedule is that the characters are written well enough to genuinely feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. They have similar traits (they all own pets, the use of the word “angerball”) but they also just feel like believable individuals who are related to each other. When they make distant appearances through the film (unheard on the other end of the phone, casually mentioned in passing dialogue, etc.) it holds the movie better knowing that they’re part of one family.

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On top of that, Hannah and Paul’s story, filled with concern, affection, and a plentiful exchange of barbs, feels all the more real because you can imagine they’re two people who have really been married for forty years. Their snarky exchanges seem to be echoed in Joan’s wilder side, while her emotional efforts in the tumultuous courtship that she has with Keenan echoes Meredith’s neuroses in her budding relationship with Trent.

It’s not that the characters share the same feelings and expressions, it’s just that you can see how there’s a link between these characters that members of a family share. Rather than the reveal that they’re all related simply be a gimmick as to how the characters connect, it seems to have informed the writing of the characters right from the start – the film holds up to repeat viewings being able to find these connections

And what of the film itself?

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I love it, or at the very least have a very soft spot for it. Romantic comedies are not really my genre of choice, but this one stands out for being relatively low key in what it’s doing. There’s no hallmark holiday tie in (as with Love, Actually’s Christmas setting, or the self explanatory New Years’ Eve and Valentine’s Day) and there’s no outrageous slapstick or ridiculous comedy (think Hugh Grant’s prime ministerial dance through 10 Downing Street) that works well enough to elicit a chuckle but kills any sense of realism.

The dialogue of Playing by Heart is showy and determinedly talky, and so obviously based on a stage play, but it’s enjoyable and quotable, not a distraction because the characters are so verbose.

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This is certainly the film that cemented my love of Angelina Jolie. Joan is an awesome character – fierce and fun, but still warm and human. She’s brash and gregarious, but Jolie’s performance makes Joan feel like she’s these things purely because that’s how she wants to approach life. She’s also given some of the film’s best moments (how she quickly finishes up a phone call when Kennan drops by unannounced is hilarious).

Ellen Burstyn’s performance as Mildred is fun and sad. It’s nice to see this woman reach a point in her life where she’s able to just let her hair down and be honest with her son, and Burstyn brings instant maternal warmth to the role. Her performance in one particular scene never fails to make me a little watery ‘bout the eyeballs .

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Everyone else gives decent performances that are very enjoyable, but could largely have been played by any other actor out there. But the actors here are on fine form and seem to be having fun with the material, and Ryan Phillipe actually gets a legitimate context to act like a bored drone for once!

The only misfire is the Gracie/Roger subplot, which doesn’t have anything of an arc to it. They simply are having an affair in some scenes, and then suddenly they’re not. They’re given no character depth or relevance, until the reveal that Gracie is Hugh’s wife, and maybe she realises she does love him after all. That said, if the trailer is anything to go by, nearly all of their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor; the trailer makes it seem like theirs is the main plot, and is comprised nearly entirely of scenes that didn’t make the final cut.

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And I assume that was merely for timing – the film is just shy of two hours but you wouldn’t know it. It cruises along nicely, doesn’t demand too much of your attention, and is one of the least confrontational things out there, as long as a bit of language doesn’t confront you.

This should have been a bigger movie. It’s cast is great, and even if I choose to be cynical, this is the sort of movie that undemanding audiences lap up in spades (although this movie has plenty for the demanding audiences too). It’s a nice and heartwarming movie that is a pleasant way to while away some time while getting a nice “everything is wonderful” feeling. The subplots are all resolved neatly and tidily, there’s not a lot of substance to it, but it’s pleasant and it’s fun. It’s complete fluff – but it’s well made fluff. Like cashmere. But a movie.

Trailer below is horribly 90s naff.


One thought on “Playing by Heart (1998)

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