"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture" is an ubiquitous pop-culture saying. The emotionally needy party girl Joan (Angelina Jolie) in "Playing by Heart" shares this quotation with the painfully introspective Keenan (Ryan Phillippe). Her sense, though, is that the same can be said for matters of the heart; talking about romance is irrelevant to the real thing.
Writer/director Willard Carroll devotes the bulk of "Playing By Heart" -- originally titled "Dancing About Architecture" until the "Dancing at Lughnasa" folks protested -- to long-winded verbal intercourse about love, sex and the elusiveness of domestic bliss. But in the end, this frustrating mix of drama, romance and comedy doesn't do much to illuminate its subject.
Taking cues from Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" and Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon," Carroll details the emotional trials of a group of singles and couples in contemporary Los Angeles. Their connections to one another are revealed in bits and pieces, and are clarified only near the film's end.
Joan, brightly portrayed by acclaimed newcomer Jolie, is stumbling out of a disastrous relationship and into something else altogether with sullen, practically mute Keenan. "I don't date," he bluntly tells her over the din of a disco. Jay Mohr is suitably vulnerable as Mark, an AIDS patient who shares long-buried family secrets with his mother, Mildred (Ellen Burstyn). Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery are Hannah and Paul, married for 40 years and seeking to survive old patterns and heal new wounds.
Dennis Quaid is lonely-guy Hugh, spinning fantastic fabrications about his troubles in an effort to kill the real pain inside. Gillian Anderson ("The X-Files") is good as the bitter theater director Meredith, so scorched from past couplings that she can't see the honest intentions of funny architect Trent (Jon Stewart).
Carroll, who wrote and directed "Tom's Midnight Garden" (1998) and "The Runestone" (1990), juggles these multiple story lines until each one arrives at an unsurprising conclusion. Trouble is, we don't spend enough time with any one character to really care who mates up and who breaks up, or who thrives and who dies.