On paper it sounds like a less-ambitious ensemble drama from filmmaker Robert Altman, but the comedy-drama "Playing By Heart" is actually paced and structured like a mystery.

Audiences might be a bit befuddled at first, but with an open mind they should have a good time figuring out exactly what the main theme of the film is, and what — if any — relationships exist between the multitude of characters.

Believe it or not, that seems to be the intention of filmmaker Willard Carroll (1990's "The Runestone"). Throughout the movie, this crafty writer-director keeps throwing in hints and information that gradually adds to the overall mosaic.

Admittedly, all of this is at least 15 minutes too long, and the numerous subplots ensure that some will be superficial. In fact, it could have benefited from having one or two plot threads snipped. But it's hard to argue with any film that boasts a cast of this caliber.

On the surface, "Playing By Hart" appears to follow the romantic relationships between some very different couples. Cooking show host Hannah (Gena Rowlands) has been happily married to television producer Paul (Sean Connery) for years. But when she discovers a hidden photo, it casts doubts on their relationship.

Aspiring actress Joan (Angelina Jolie) is in hot pursuit of a blue-haired dance club patron (Ryan Phillippe) who doesn't seem interested. Meanwhile, Gracie (Madeleine Stowe) and Roger (Anthony Edwards) carry on a steamy affair, even though each is married.

Relationship-phobic stage director Meredith (Gillian Anderson) keeps making excuses for not getting involved with a charming bookstore owner (Jon Stewart). And Hugh (Dennis Quaid) is a pathological liar who, at different times, pretends to be a recent widower, a failed television executive and a bisexual.

As mentioned, the connection between the stories isn't made clear until the very end, though apparent themes include secrets and the consequences of reckless romance.

In addition to the extremely intriguing premise, the film also features some dream couples: Connery and Rowlands are as appealing together as you'd imagine, while the pairing of Anderson and Stewart yields some surprising chemistry.

Some other choices by Carroll are not as successful (the Stowe-Edwards and Quaid bits, in particular), and some of his dialogue is cliched. But the cast is obviously having a ball. (Even Phillippe is good, which could be the film's most startling revelation.)

"Playing By Heart" is rated R for profanity, use of vulgar slang, as well as some lewd dancing, slapping and a somewhat violent romantic rejection.