On Second Thought: “Playing By Heart”

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Valentine’s Day is upon us once more, which means, it’s time to break out the romantic comedies and sentimental films that we all love to watch on this day. Even if you’re not big on celebrating this day, or even decorating all that much, it still seems impossible to resist popping in at least one romantic film or watching one on TV. Maybe it’s just the whole holiday craze (which is what I call it), where you watch films that correspond with the given holiday. Whatever the reason you choose to watch an appropriate holiday themed film, it very well could be the reason you decide to skip the classics and try something new.

The Miramax Films film “Playing by Heart” is a great alternative to classic romantic comedies and dramas, as it does so much more than just give you characters striving to find love. It explores love in a way I’ve somehow missed in the past 15 to 20 viewings, if not more. It’s also a far cry from what I usually do during a given holiday. I’ve watched the holiday titled films, (“My Bloody Valentine (2009)”, “Valentine’s Day”, and “My Bloody Valentine (1981)” and written about them, so I finally had an opportunity to do something different. It was either that or I skip it entirely. I couldn’t resist the call of the holiday. Each year, with most holidays, I find some film to fit my holiday needs. It helps too that it’s one that I absolutely love. I never get tired of it, and once more I’m reminded of why that is.

Love Is All Around

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The biggest reason I love this film, which I sadly didn’t fully realize until this viewing, is the representation of love. I guess at some point during my many viewings I was merely going through the motions. I enjoyed what was before me, but it didn’t mean a whole lot as I was already quite familiar with the film’s contents. There are so many forms of love, many we’ve all encountered and know full well, and some we don’t or know very little about. It’s because of this that even with a lot of love of the romantic variety floating around and reminding you that it’s always there, you can still get something from the other displays of love. I’m not saying that they’re going to hit some deep and meaningful level, but they’ll certainly resonate in some way. That’s part of the beauty of this film, there’s something for everyone.

Romance and finding the one is a big player in this film. We see this with Angelina Jolie’s and Ryan Phillippe’s characters and with Gillian Anderson’s and Jon Stewart’s characters primarily. They don’t seem to be deliberately searching for it, but once the opportunity for a relationship comes along, it’s impossible to pass up. However, even with these two showcases of romantic love, there lies another issue with love that connects them. The fact that sometimes a person can be guarded, maybe too much and they don’t want to put themselves in a position that could get them hurt even more. In this film, probably more so than in real life, it’s a fascinating exploration. With each viewing, I’m still able to love these characters and only want the best for them, but at the same time, I’m hoping that the ones, who are the most guarded, can actually change well before the events of the film. It’s a silly thought, but maybe it’s because I’ve spent too much time with them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sean Connery’s and Gena Rowland’s characters embody a much different type of love, but it’s one I’m sure most people hope to achieve themselves. This form of love comes in the form of a long term relationship that manages to live on no matter the ups and downs. These two characters have been married for 40 years, but when you meet them, they’re going through a rough patch. It’s one that extends to events from years ago, but they’re still important even now. The exploration of this type of love comes from the fact that they still care deeply for each other, even when trying to figure out how they feel about specific moments during their marriage. In so many ways, it appears to be a testament of a long lasting relationship.

On a less positive note, but still about a type of love, there’s the fact that sometimes, nothing can save your relationship. In this film there’s a character in a loveless marriage. Why stay? Well, that’s explored. It appears to come back to hope and had they had something when they started, but somehow things got off track. By film’s end, there seems to be a renewed hope in making the marriage work. They’ve been inspired. Does that automatically answer why even when having a basic conversation and telling the other that the garbage needs to be taken out, it all sounds cold? Not even close, but everything you get gives you enough to examine.

One type of love, which I knew was always clear, but hadn’t fully viewed in this way, involves Ellen Burstyn’s and Jay Mohr’s characters. They play mother and son. However, tragedy is what brings them together. Of all the explorations of love, this one may be the hardest one to watch. While there’s a universal aspect to all of these plotlines, this one may be the one that affects so many in ways the others can’t. We all have a mother, or we did, and with that, a certain kind of relationship. Some better than others, but the love we have for a parent, is going to be strong and complicated no matter what. That’s what surprised me with this duo, as there were just so many good moments that it gave me something to aspire to. It was presented in probably the most relatable way as well, and for a film with so much dramatic exploration already happening, it may in fact be the storyline that grounds the whole film.

Lasting Connections

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While exploring various aspects of love is fascinating and fun, there’s so much more that also makes this film worth watching, even if it is the twentieth time. It’s everything that brings this film together and makes it truly come to life.

This film is a romantic comedy, in that there’s a lot of romance and comedy stemming from the brilliant and wickedly funny characters. Granted, sometimes some of the retorts are sarcastic in nature, but that doesn’t stop them from being funny. Thank god for the good writing and the desire to have the characters make you laugh as opposed to trying to set up gags and have them fall flat. What makes this possible are the performances. Actually, what makes all of this, the whole film, work are the performances, in every way. They’re pretty grounded and never give you the feeling you’re watching some melodrama. The drama is real. It’s familiar in so many ways. Because of the overall exploration of the various types of love, through the performances, you also get a decent exploration of the characters. This may be the point of most films, but with a film like this, with so many characters and a lot to cover, it could easily all go south.

If anything’s the matter with this film, it’s the pacing. It’s slower, but again, because of the character insights, it’s worth it. You get so much time with them, and by film’s end, it absolutely pays off. I’ve never once found myself bored or disinterested. I could be trying to make it be background noise, but most of the time I get swept up in all that’s going on. Most of that, I’ve discovered, is because of the chemistry between the actors. You’re not simply going to fall in love with them or find what they do to be charming and cute because the script and film told you to, you will because you buy it. It’s authentic enough. Perhaps even, it’s something that you don’t have or wish could be better. With this in hand, it allows for the dramatic moments to really stand out. They can be more effective and easily allow you to feel for the characters. Whatever flaws they may have, or however damaged they may appear, there’s always a way to care about them.

For a film about romance and love and its many forms, there’s certainly a lot of drama. There’s also a lot of laughter and fun to be had as you’re following these characters through this thing called life. It’s all a game, but sometimes, even with so many more downs than ups, the outcome can still be in your favor.

In case your curiosity is not fully piqued:

Originally released: Dec. 18, 1998

Written and directed: Willard Carroll

Starring: Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Connery, Anthony Edwards, Angelina Jolie, Jay Mohr, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Quaid, Gena Rowlands, Jon Stewart and Madeleine Stowe

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