Playing by Heart

USA 1998

Reviewed by Mike Higgins


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Los Angeles. The personal relationships of an apparently disparate group of characters are depicted over eight days. Joan is a skittish clubber who falls for the brooding Keenan. Hugh props up bars spinning fictional hard-luck yarns to whoever will listen. Retired television producer Paul and his wife Hannah, a television chef, are coping with the recent diagnosis of his brain tumour. Trent is a single, attractive architect who by chance meets and invites out Meredith, a workaholic theatre director. Unhappily married Gracie is having an affair with Roger, also married. Meanwhile, Mildred is at the bedside of her gay son Mark, who is dying of Aids.

Keenan reveals that he is HIV+ to Joan who, to his relief, is undaunted. Gracie, it transpires, is married to Hugh, whose tale-telling turns out to be part of an improvisation class. Paul admits to Hannah to falling in love with an assistant 25 years ago. Meredith succumbs to the persistent Trent before being called away to the funeral of her ex-husband Mark. Paul and Hannah renew their wedding vows watched by their three daughters - Gracie, Meredith and Joan - and the daughters' partners with whom they are all, more or less, reconciled. Roger is the officiating minister.


Following on the heels of David Kane's This Year's Love, Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors, Tony Gerber's Side Streets and even Todd Solondz's Happiness, Playing by Heart is yet another film in which a daisy-chain narrative links by coincidence and fate the lives of sundry characters. But any resemblance between director of The Runestone Willard Carroll's soft-centred comedy-drama and those other films is only skin deep.

To begin with, Carroll is too discrete with character and storyline to let the various narratives overlap with anything other than the most fleeting of connections. Before we know they're related, for instance, each of the sisters drops the epithet "anger ball" into conversation. It's nothing more than a frivolous clue to the film's ending, but that phrase itself speaks volumes about the simplistic way in which Carroll approaches Playing by Heart's basic theme: emotional crisis. Everyone - from youngest child Joan to her father Paul - is defined by little else but the single problem confronting them. So the most important thing we learn about Paul is that in the early 70s he had a crush on a fellow member of staff, a confession which enrages his wife Hannah. Besides this problem Paul's other major concerns - his brain tumour, even his children - feel trivial.

Hand-in-hand with this reductiveness is the film's refusal to distinguish between the numerous quandaries of its characters. Mark's dying moments with his mother are clearly of a more intense order than Hugh and Gracie's marital difficulties, so why lard both with the same teary-eyed schmaltz? The same naivety is apparent in the unwavering integrity ascribed to each character. In the same way certain couples decide who gets which side of the bed, the adolescent Joan and Keenan breezily agree on the etiquette of a relationship in the shadow of Aids. This uniformity isn't only skewed psychologically, it scuppers any diversity in terms of tone or pace. One has to worry when the most challenging screen presence belongs to Joan's mangy, one-eyed cat.

This being a Los Angeles-set ensemble drama, Robert Altman's Short Cuts looms large, but Playing by Heart suffers by comparison. Carroll clearly wants to make the case for the universal significance of his parochial cast of emotional casualties. At strategic points, the sun and moon rush across the cityscape in a time-lapsed round. Even the screenplay's lumbering final twist - the revelation that what we've been watching are the soap operatics of an extended family - is meant to stand as a reassuring metaphor for the all-encompassing nature of emotional turmoil. Set against Altman's panoramic web of stories, though, Carroll's milieu is resolutely middle class and the crises encountered all too predictable.


Willard Carroll
Meg Liberman
Tom Wilhite
Willard Carroll
Director of Photography
Vilmos Zsigmond
Pietro Scalia
Production Designer
Missy Stewart
Music/Music Conductor/Orchestrations
John Barry
©Miramax Film Corp.
Production Companies
Miramax Films and Intermedia Films present in association with Morpheus a Hyperion production
Executive Producers
Paul Feldsher
Bob Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein
Guy East
Nigel Sinclair
Co-executive Producer
David Witz
Kurt Albrecht
Associate Producer
Kacy Andrews
Executive in Charge of Production for Miramax
Jeremy Kramer
For InterMedia Films
Will Evans
Tim Haslam
Kathy Goodman
Paul Davis
Production Supervisor
Jeffrey Berk
Production Co-ordinator
Michele A. Carmel
Unit Production Manager
David Witz
Location Manager
Kristi Frankenheimer-Davis
Angel Pine
Jill René Gilbert
Assistant Directors
Cas Donovan
Kelly Kiernan
Carla Bowen
Script Supervisor
Jain Sekuler
Liberman/Hirschfeld Casting
Irene Cagen
Merri Sugarman
ADR Voice:
Barbara Harris
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Joseph D. Urbanczyk
Camera Operator
Joseph D. Urbanczyk
Digital Visual Effects
Special Effects
John S. Baker
Art Director
Charlie Daboub
Set Designers
Patte Strong
Mark Poll
Set Decorator
Cindy Carr
Costume Designer
April Ferry
Costume Supervisor
Carlane Passman Little
Department Head:
Christina Smith
Heather Lee Fraker
Melanie Hughes
Janeen Schreyer
Jane English
Department Head:
Susan Germaine
Kim Santantonio
Emanuel Manny Millar
Title Design
Robert Dawson
Digital Main Titles Compositing
Digital Artist:
Grady Cofer
End Titles/Opticals
Howard Anderson
Music Performers
Solo Trumpet:
Chris Botti
Michael Lang
Leland Sklar
Harvey Mason
Daniel Higgins
Tommy Morgan
Music Supervision
Tim Sexton
Music Co-ordinator
Karen Kloack
Music Editors
Clifford Kohlweck
Adam Kay
Music Scoring Mixer
Dennis Sands
"Drinking in LA" by James Di Salvio, Haig Vartzbedian, Duane Larson, performed by Bran Van 3000; "Angelene" by Polly Jean Harvey, performed by P.J Harvey; "Been around the World" by David Lowery, performed by Cracker; "Tijuana Lady" by Ian Ball, Oliver Peacock, Paul Blackburn, Benjamin Ottewell, William Gray, performed by Gomez; "Nightmare" by Alberto Bertapelle, performed by Brainbug; "I'm Glad There Is You" by Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Madeira, performed by Chet Baker; "Friction" by Paul Godfrey, Ross Godfrey, Skye Edwards, performed by Morcheeba; "Porcelain" by Richard Hall, performed by Moby; "Everything Happens to Me" by Matt Dennis, Thomas Adair, performed by The Charlie Haden Quartet with Chet Baker; "It's Only Sexual", "Lost Baby", "Bluff", "An LA Groove", "Homecoming" by Christopher Young; "Exactly Like Me" by Eric Bergen, Robert Eaglesham, Haig Vartzbedian, James Di Salvio, performed by Bran Van 3000; "Cigarettes Will Kill You" by/performed by Ben Lee; "Dirty Little Mouth" by/performed by Fluke; "Recado bossa nova" by Luiz Antonio, Djalma Ferreira, performed by Laurindo Almeida and The Bossa Nova All-Stars; "Samba de Orfeu" by Luiz Bonfá, Antônio Maria, Andre Salvet, performed by Ray Anthony; "Voodoo Dreams" by Les Baxter; "Surrender 2 Love" by/performed by Ottmar Liebert; "I soliti ignoti" by Piero Umiliani, performed by Chet Baker; "I Care (Soul II Soul)" by Junie Morrison, performed by Soul II Soul; "I'll Plant My Own Tree" & "It's Impossible" from "Valley of the Dolls" by André Previn, Dory Previn; "Lucius Lu" by P. Urso, performed by Chet Baker; "Lover's Will" by John Hiatt, performed by Bonnie Raitt; "Dance the Night Away" by Raul Malo, performed by The Mavericks; "Walk into This Room" by Edward Kowalczyk, performed by Edward Kowalczyk and Neneh Cherry
Sound Mixer
Arthur Rochester
Re-recording Mixers
Mark Berger
Melissa Hofmann
Supervising Sound Editors
Kelly Cabral
Wylie Stateman
Dialogue Editors
Kimaree Long
Lauren Stephens
Sound Effects Design
Scott Sanders
Sound Effects Editors
Jon Title
Hector Gika
Robert Batha
Jennifer Mann
Dana Porter
Paul Zydel
Ron Bedrosian
Catherine Harper
Pat Cabral
Nerses Gezalyan
Patricia Lamberti
Kelly Oxford
Stunt Co-ordinator
Dan Bradley
Animals Provided by
Bob Dunn's Animal Services
Animal Trainer
Denise Sanders
Film Extract
Peyton Place (1957)
Gillian Anderson
Ellen Burstyn
Sean Connery
Anthony Edwards
Angelina Jolie
Jay Mohr
Ryan Phillippe
Dennis Quaid
Gena Rowlands
Jon Stewart
Madeleine Stowe
Patricia Clarkson
April Grace
Alec Mapa
Christian Mills
Kelly Waymire
Tim Halligan
director - cook show
Michael Emerson
John Patrick White
Amanda Peet
David Ferguson
drag queen
Joel McCrary
bartender - drag bar
Worthie Meacham
2nd drag queen
Michael Buchman Silver
Hal Landon Jr
'commissioner' actor
Marc Allen Lewis
'Harpagon' actor
Ron Boussom
'Jacques' actor
Daniel Chodos
'Anselme' actor
Mark Lewis
Jim Abele
Chris Conner
Marcus Printup
trumpet player
Larry Antonino
bass player
Tom Chuchvara
Robert English
Ryo Okumoto
Doris Hess
Judi Durand
Catherine Cavadini
Barbara Iley
Carlyle King
Cheryl Tyre-Smith
David Allen Kramer
David McCharen
Greg Finley
David Randolph
Matt Adler
Richard Penn
group voices
Nastassja Kinski
David Clennon
Jeremy Sisto
Matt Malloy
desk clerk
Buena Vista International (UK)
10,895 feet
121 minutes 3 seconds
Dolby digital/SDDS/Digital DTS
Colour by
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011