(Glen Ficara & John Requa, 2011)
Playing By Heart is a 1998 comedy drama, directed by one Willard Carroll, with a surprisingly starry cast. Sean Connery, Angelina Jolie, Ryan Phillippe,, Jon Stewart, Dennis Quaid, Madeilne Stowe and Gena Rowlands are all part of the impressive ensemble. It's blandly shot, set to an eclectic soundtrack of pop songs, and set in the most middle class, glossily attractive parts of Los Angeles. It's a portrayal of a disparate group of characters in the city and their relationships and struggles with love. Its like a less ambitious, less accomplished, less interesting spin on superior multi-character LA dramas like Robert Altman's Short Cuts, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia or Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon. Those films all grapple with multiple themes and deeper trends, with knotty social and emotional problems, and ultimately with life itself. Not Playing By Heart. It's about love, nothing more, nothing less. And that's ok. Love is a worthy and profound subject, and has inspired thousands of great works of art, from pop songs to poetry to novels to cinema. I'm just not sure that the romantic comedy is the genre best suited to discussing it. Well, perhaps the auteur-driven romantic comedy. Creative intelligences like that Woody Allen or Albert Brooks have done it with conspicuous success in the past. But the slick romcom, all effortlessly nice fashion, unconvincingly spacious homes, identity-less, boring music and predictably conventional storytelling? That sort of risk free, lazy film is all about love. But the form seems to prevent any sort of deeper consideration of the subject as a theme. The superficial and narrative elements never go far enough. Love is strange, but worthwhile, is the greeting card conclusion many such films seem to settle upon.
Crazy Stupid Love even includes the word in its title, and its characters openly discuss love as an intangible and an ideal on a couple of occasions. It centres around an interlinked - of course - collection of people in LA. Steve Carell plays a fortysomething whose wife, played with customary class and rawness by Julianne Moore, asks him for a divorce on a date one night. Sent reeling back clueless onto the singles scene he meets a dapper young stud, played by the effortlessly smug Ryan Gosling, who instructs him how to dress, talk and pick up women, before he himself falls in love. Meanwhile Carell's 13 year-old son is in love with his 17 year-old babysitter, who loves Carell and the links and contrivances go on.
There are moments of truth and some laughs in a script which sporadically pops with wisdom on the reality of marriage, for instance, or the cruelty of singledom. The attractive cast makes much of it work much better than it should; Carell's sincerity is nicely-deployed, and contrasts well with Gosling's preening self-regard.
Ultimately, however, it all climaxes in a series of farcical confrontations and public declarations; the kind of thing, in short, that happens exclusively in romcoms. It may provide narrative satisfaction, but it shortchanges the films seeming ambition to examine love as a theme. All that's left, then, are the superficial pleasures; the music, the clothes, the locations, and a couple of decent belly-laughs.