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Both Playing by Heart and 1998's Happiness revolve around the stories of three sisters, their family and their search for love. But where writer-director Todd Solondz's much-acclaimed Happiness kept its humor and point of view determinedly black, writer-director Willard Carroll's Playing by Heart plays it bright and sunny. But sometimes dark is better than light, and such is the case with Playing by Heart. It's not a bad movie, but it suffers from the inevitable comparisons with Happiness

The relationship between matriarch Hannah (Gena Rowlands) and patriarch Paul (Sean Connery) lies at the heart of Playing by Heart. As they prepare to renew their wedding vows after 40 years of marriage, Paul is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Rather than face Paul's impending death, they fight over a 25-year-old affair that really never was. Though it's hard to imagine anyone forsaking Rowlands, she and Connery make a convincing, loving couple. 

The least interesting story belongs Gracie (Madeleine Stowe), the married sister conducting what she thinks is a strictly physical affair with Roger (Anthony Williams). After 15 years of marriage, Gracie seeks to restore the spontaneity of her marriage. 

Meredith (Gillian Anderson), the relationship-burned, theater director sister, embarks on a romance with Trent (Jon Stewart), a "too good to be true" real estate developer. Their scenes are fun to watch. Stewart shows real promise as an actor, perhaps even more promise than his former talk show colleague Greg Kinnear.  

Youngest sister and aspiring actress Joan (Angelina Jolie) hotly pursues disco loner Keenan (Ryan Philippe). Despite Jolie's brashness, her scenes with Philippe are the film's most tender.  

In this context, the story of neighbor Mildred (Ellen Burstyn) and her son Mark (Jay Mohr) seems an afterthought designed to move the film forward and tie up loose ends. Mark is dying from AIDS, and his scenes with Burstyn, while moving, are nothing we haven't seen many times before. 

Finally, Dennis Quaid plays Hugh, an apparent barfly in search of some undefined goal. Showing up at different bars in different poses throughout the movie, Quaid gives a tour de force performance. 

Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography and Melissa Stewart's production designs contribute greatly to the story, perfectly capturing the sunny side of Los Angeles. 

Playing by Heart is not a great movie, but it's full of great performances. See it for the acting. 

Joan Fuchsman 

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