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NewCityNet Bond, Family Bond

By Ray Pride

JANUARY 25, 1999:  Fragmentation is the form of many modern lives and almost as many modern movies.

While Willard Carroll's "Playing by Heart," a tricksy contemporary Los Angeles roundelay of relationships, may resemble the likes of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" or the vignettey buzz of some of Alan Rudolph's work, the mid-forties writer-director has a more affirmative view of relationships than either of those filmmakers. Written within an inch of its life, Carroll's script alternates, among other stories, an older couple facing mortality (Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands); an adulterous couple, caught only at their sex games (Anthony Edwards, Madeline Stowe); a much-burned-at-love theater director (Gillian Armstrong) and her perfect match (Jon Stewart), who scares her silly. "Playing by Heart" once bore the more striking moniker, "Dancing about Architecture," after comic Martin Mull's quip that "talking about love is like dancing about architecture," and that line is given to the youngest of those coupling, Angelina Jolie. Jolie gives a breathless, star-making performance as a narcissist bursting with life, a self-possessed actress wannabe who can't stop talking (she meets her match in the grave, seldom-speaking Ryan Phillippe). While cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's lighting drenches all of Los Angeles in a kind of candied, ruddy marzipan glow, he's particularly attentive to Jolie's full lips and fuller bosom.

Throughout, the movie drives home the point that love goes on, from first puppy love to the grave, and that passion can survive. Connery is particularly good, in an unusually modest role for him, and one as tinged with mortality as his "Robin and Marian." Talking to the 68-year-old legend, even the most banal answers sound elegant in his sly brogue. Connery says he didn't consider this role different from his larger-than-life ones, cracking, "It's the same process. You have to know the lines, where to stand."

He says that he wasn't conscious of playing "smaller." "No, the choices you make in terms of the character and the situation, the dance, as it were, are all the same. But we were fortunate in that the house that we shot in was the only set for Gena and myself. We blocked the scenes before we started shooting so we had a familiarity with the set unlike a normal movie. Every part of the house you see is linked and the story was shot as close as possible in chronological order, and therefore one became absolutely familiar with the house." The house was built by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Connery says he did find it more larger-than-life than his role. "The husband-and-wife dance in the story was made easier by the habitat, by the geography of the connection of the rooms to one another. It gives it a certain kind of seamlessness. You walk into a corridor and it's the same constant corridor that takes you into the bedroom. Whereas in a normal movie you might start in one and two months do the next part in another place. Or shoot the end first."

There's also a quirky bit of intimacy between the older couple, when Connery does an eager little puppy dog dance when promised a bit of bed time. "Well, it wasn't mine," he laughs. "That was the director. It was always in the script." After a pause, he grins. "But I'm pretty good at dogs, actually."

Connery also says he's alert to how interviewers judge his roles. "We did television yesterday, and the interviewers' body language gave indications of what the film had or hadn't done for them. We got some really interesting responses, one from a girl who said she was 'over-elated' at the end and maybe the movie was too romantic. I found it very difficult to deal with someone as paradoxical as that! To be over-elated—I would assume that's what we're all trying to be! Then the other interviewers all told me it was unusual to see a film about people 'your age' who are still involved." Indeed, Connery and Rowlands are peers, unlike the usual case, such as the upcoming "Entrapment," which stars Connery with the much younger Catherine Zeta-Jones. "It certainly isn't the norm in American films. The film I remember that dealt with that best was 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' when they were all coming back and trying to find their feet after the war. For me, it's not really until ['Playing by Heart'] that one hears so much about somebody over..." he pauses, "a certain age... being still romantically or passionately involved with someone." It would seem that most directors or casting directors would be intimidated to ask Connery to be in small films. "Intimidated by me? No, not really. I read as much as physically possible and certainly have access to an enormous amount of material, but this is a first-class job. It's got nothing to do with the scale. Mind you, I've turned down some movies that were very successful, too, but I would have regretted not getting to do this movie. It didn't occur to me that it was something that would be a point of departure, to be playing something minimized. It's not how I see things, anyway."

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