There’s exciting telecommunications news out of Los Angeles: you no longer have to wait for your phone calls to go through. Just drop a coin, hit a few numbers, and start yapping. In Playing by Heart, one of the city’s magic pay phones works so well for Joan (Angelina Jolie), a radiantly egotistical actress, that she tries her hand at a magic monologue: an arch, irritating verbal assault that eventually captures the love of a morose young man (Ryan Phillipe) who can’t get a word in edgewise. Elsewhere, a series of similarly dumbstruck strangers fall prey to a barroom bullshitter (Dennis Quaid), who waylays them with patently false tales of domestic tragedies; a set of adulterous lovers (Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards) engage in a talky affair; a mother and her dying son (Ellen Burstyn and Jay Mohr) are reunited; and a long-married couple (Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery) bicker, apparently for the first time, about infidelity and mortality.
Nearly everybody in this well-acted drama of disconnection seems to live in a shelter magazine, but only a nervous romance between Gillian Anderson and Jon Stewart manages to be more fascinating than the pricey furniture. The movie’s previous title, Dancing About Architecture, was derived from writer-director Willard Carroll’s misapprehension of the old musician’s put-down of music criticism. Joan misquotes the line as “Talking about love is like dancing about architecture” and attributes it to “a trumpeter friend,” so it should come as no surprise that when that trumpeter appears in the film, these supposedly bosom pals don’t bother to acknowledge each other. (She’s a wedding guest; his band is working the party.) In this movie, music, like language, is mere decoration: you notice it only when it gets on your nerves.