Film: The Big Picture - LA conversational

PLAYING BY HEART (15) DIRECTOR: WILLARD CARROLL STARRING: SEAN CONNERY, GENA ROWLANDS, GILLIAN ANDERSON, JON STEWART, DENNIS QUAID. 119 MINUTES

Welcome to La-La Land. As portrayed in Willard Carroll's romantic ensemble, Playing By Heart, Los Angeles is a sexy, after-hours sort of place, a nocturne of cocktail jazz, hushed lighting, beautiful interiors, Hockney pools and open fires. You'd imagine the affluent, middle-class characters who inhabit the film to be mostly content, and who wouldn't be in this privileged, money-honeyed milieu? They are as far from the city of police helicopters, carjacking and smog as Los Angeles can possibly get, short of disguising itself altogether. There isn't even the glimmer of liberal guilt that Lawrence Kasdan allowed in his LA story, Grand Canyon; this film refuses to pay even lip service to "issues".

Fine by me: let's have more films that romanticise cities all out of proportion (Manhattan, Roman Holiday, The Moderns - name your favourite). Playing By Heart would like to seduce us, too, and within this handsome urban setting writer-director Carroll prompts his cast to brood and bellyache over a question which most audiences will find similarly congenial. Namely, what is this thing called love?

The cross-generational cast is led by Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery), a couple who are approaching their 40th anniversary but are currently at odds over a near-fling he had 25 years ago. Meredith (Gillian Anderson) is an uptight theatre director who can't help being prickly even when she's being romanced by nice guy Trent (Jon Stewart); Hugh (Dennis Quaid) tells elaborate lies to strangers in bars; Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) and Roger (Anthony Edwards) get their extramarital kicks in hotel bedrooms; Mildred (Ellen Burstyn) keeps watch over her son Mark (Jay Mohr) as he struggles towards death from Aids.

This is already a pretty crowded plot and we haven't even got to Joan (Angelina Jolie), a flaky wild-child who's intrigued by sullen disco boy Keenan (Ryan Phillippe). She likes to quote this bon mot on the pursuit of love: "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture." The writer likes the line, too, so much that it's repeated not once but twice, which considering it's rather an old line seems excessive.

But then everybody else in this film talks in the same arch, duelling sort of way, as if they're expecting to hear their polished chat admiringly quoted back to them. Following yet another of Joan's self-absorbed monologues, Keenan is finally driven to explain why they might not be suited to one another: "I just don't come out with my whole life story over Martinis and a Coke." It's just about the kindest way of telling her she's a garrulous bore.

Yet his admonition, far from reining in the film's talkiness, seems to encourage a positive gab-fest. It's almost as if Willard Carroll believes that there is no romantic impasse which cannot be solved by people yammering on.

Some handle the script's fussy elaboration better than others: Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery make their bickering look as natural as, well, a couple 40 years into marriage. Rowlands does a wonderful job of suggesting a woman who's still surprised to find herself flying off the handle - the opposite of the professional poise she masters in her Martha Stewart-style TV cookery programme. That other old trouper, Ellen Burstyn, is also terrific as the grief-stricken mother putting a brave face on her son's agonising decline. Her face as she chokes back tears is more eloquent than any of Carroll's glib backchat.

The younger members of the cast are less engaging, their hard- luck stories sounding a little over-rehearsed. When Gillian Anderson, at her most emotionally constipated here, tells her suitor, "I don't want all this calculated artificiality", I had to laugh - you're in the wrong movie, honey. "Calculated" is precisely how this material plays, and it puts you on guard: it's the sound of people who mean themselves to be overheard.

In this way, it's quite the reverse of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, with which Playing By Heart has been compared. While one suspects that Altman's style isn't quite as freewheeling and improvisational as he likes to make out, the rough edges and desultory, off-the-cuff dialogue do convey the impression of something happening there and then; of the eccentric, hilarious and desperate nature of human interaction. Carroll's movie, on the other hand, feels like a high-toned soap opera that's been neatly concertinaed into a two-hour package, its disparate strands tied up in a bright bow.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and scored by 007 composer John Barry, its picture of LA is affectionate and forgiving, and for most of the time lulls you into a glazed trance. But it's not a satisfying movie. Carroll hasn't Altman's sly, sidelong wit - not many directors have - and you long for something a little more risky and offbeat. Casting comedian Jon Stewart helps a little; his line readings still have a natural snap to them which "serious" actors tend to lose. He also gets a great Woody Allenish moment with an outsize dog.

For the rest, however, it's a case of which couple can outdo the other in psychobabble, used here as the all-purpose romantic balm. I thought Sean Connery had clinched it when he explained how "My love for somebody else made me love you more". But for sheer baloney, Ryan Phillippe's emotional volte-face should take the biscuit. "I can't wait to hear the next words out of your mouth," he tells Joan, the same woman he earlier berated for blurting out her life-story over Martinis. What happened there? Sounds like the writer lacks even the courage of somebody else's convictions.

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game