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Film Review: It's the turn of the screwball

Playing by Heart

Director: Willard Carroll Starring: Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, Gillian Anderson (119 mins; 15)

There's one good joke in . Here's an "adult" comedy-drama designed to appeal to older audiences weary of the escapist entertainments that traditionally monopolise the summer release schedule - and the joke is that it's even dopier than The Phantom Menace.

"Talking about love is like dancing about architecture" is the very first of the movie's seemingly inexhaustible supply of one-liners, yet talking about love, endlessly, is what its characters do. They meet cute, they date cute, they make love cute, they even die cute. (Of Aids, naturally. In Los Angeles, where it's all set, no one has ever been known to die of anything else.) They wisecrack through their tears, just as Victorian heroines used to smile through theirs. And still they talk.

But then, they're all suffering from what might be called angst in their pants. "Don't look at me in that tone of voice!" quips Sean Connery to Gena Rowlands during a marital spat. "I've been in a holding pattern where romance is concerned," quips a Monica Lewinksy-coiffed Gillian Anderson to Jon Stewart on their tricky first date. "I have dogs instead of children because I can have dogs but I can't have children," quips - oh, I've already forgetten who quips it and, anyway, who cares? The lines are all totally interchangeable and were probably allotted to their respective characters the way infants pick soccer teams in a schoolyard: eeny-meeny-miny-mo.

Comedians famously dream of playing Hamlet, abruptly changing gears like Harry Secombe straightening his face and patting down his unruly hair prior to belting out "Men of Harlech". With the advent of the one-liner culture - watching , an ensemble piece, is like sitting through a dozen episodes of Friends back to back - changing gears is no longer necessary. Nowadays you can play Hamlet and continue wisecracking.

I won't bother relating the film's storyline because even a synopsis of piffle is piffle. Suffice to say that it homes in on a sextet of odd couples in LA - bickering husband and wife, mother and dying son, anonymous hotel-room lovers, bruised divorcee and persistent suitor, mythomaniac and bar-room pick-up, wacky sexpot and boyishly broody loner - all of whose destinies turn out in the last 10 minutes to be interconnected (except that the director, one Willard Carroll, is no Altman - actually, he's no director). The playing of the mildly starry cast - there's also Angelina Jolie, Ryan Phillippe, Ellen Burstyn, Dennis Quaid, and Madeleine Stowe - is pure soap. (Am I alone in thinking that Sean Connery is not just undeserving of his current reputation as the cinema's sexiest old reliable but is in fact a frankly execrable actor whose gracefully borne baldness and elderliness have for too long been allowed to disarm criticism of his performances?) As for the LA setting, of which next to nothing is made, it was obviously chosen because they couldn't be bothered setting it anywhere else. It's nice to get back to one's own home in the evening after a hard day's shooting.

Playing By Heart is a choice specimen of "easy viewing", as we refer to "easy listening", and a rather scarier symptom of the vacuity of modern American culture than The Phantom Menace. After all, even if Lucas's movie insults its audience's intelligence, the audience it's targeting is 12- year-olds who with any luck will eventually grow out of it, whereas Carroll's rancid slice of phoney baloney is supposed to represent an alternative for more discerning spectators who presumably won't. And the only interesting question that it throws up - for me, at least - is this. Why, when I adore classic screwball comedies, do I abominate their contemporary equivalents? Why do I love wisecracks but hate one-liners? I've been using the two terms as though they were synonyms but, after seeing , I've come to realise that they aren't at all. What, then, is the difference?

Basically, that question is related to another. How well can Isolde sing? The answer is that she can't - or, to be more accurate, we never learn whether she can or not. If she sings throughout the opera that bears her name, it's simply because, well, she's in an opera. People sing in operas. It's a convention.

Likewise, in the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s - the movies of Hawks and Sturges and Capra and Wilder - the non-stop repartee was also a convention, and unproblematically accepted as such by the public. When a milkman cracked wise on the doorstep, or a gum-chewing stenographer saw off a sweaty subway masher with a snappy put-down, it didn't occur to anyone in the audience to wonder why they weren't making a fortune writing radio scripts for Jack Benny or Bob Hope - or, for that matter, for the very movies they were appearing in.

With the contemporary one-liner, however, things have changed. We're definitely expected to attribute the quality (and quantity) of wit on display in some bright and brassy movie comedy of the 1990s to character rather than convention. If, even in situations of pain and distress, the characters of When Harry Met Sally or My Best Friend's Wedding still nonchalantly contrive to toss off one bitter-sweet one-liner after another, it means that they themselves, as human beings, are intended to be thought of as smarter, cleverer and wittier than the rest of us. It also means - as anyone knows who has ever encountered such types in life - that they're shallow, smug and to be run a mile from. As, indeed, is the obnoxious bunch of narcissists in .