When Sam Shepard's play Simpatico premiered off-Broadway in 1994, it
was greeted with a mixed reaction by audiences and critics. Despite the powerful
presence of actors Ed Harris and Beverly D'Angelo, the piece had the feeling of
warmed-over ideas. Shepard, who galvanized the theatrical scene in the 1960s and
70s often deals with themes of identity and the Western ethos. Much of his work
resists adaptation to the screen as the few attempts (i.e., FOOL FOR LOVE, the
television versions of TRUE WEST and CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS)
demonstrate. Shepard, however, entrusted SIMPATICO to rising British stager
Matthew Warchus after the latter directed an acclaimed London production of
True West. Working closely with collaborator David Nicholls, Warchus had crafted
a fascinating adaptation that is faithful to the spirit of Shepard but which stands
on its own.
SIMPATICO posits the question: Can one event in your youth color the
rest of your life? For nearly all of us, there is something that has happened that
we have come to regret. The three principal characters here, Vinnie (a scruffy
Nick Nolte), Lyle Carter (a dapper Jeff Bridges) and Rosie (Sharon Stone in
one of her best screen performances in years), were friends in their late teens
and early twenties. Lyle and Vinnie were rivals for Rosie's love but in a defining
moment that led them onto a path of corruption and betrayal, they colluded on
a scam As the film begins, Vinnie has decided he can no longer live with the
guilt, so he places a frantic call to Carter insisting they have a meeting. Lyle
Carter, now a wealthy and successful horse breeder, nevertheless flies to
California to confront Vinnie and instead ends up in the company of Vinnie's
sometime girlfriend Cecilia (a strong turn by Catherine Keener).
Granted the plot is a bit convoluted and one has to pay close attention
to figure out exactly what has happened, but SIMPATICO still provides many
pleasures, chiefly in the performances. Keener does stellar work as the gentle
hearted and good woman who gets mixed up in matters beyond her. Albert
Finney, as the dupe, does fine work too. Warchus and Nicholls have opted
to flesh out the characters via flashbacks, and chose to cast a second set
of actors (Shawn Hatosy, Liam Waite and Kimberly Williams) rather than
have the stars play the characters. While it is can be a risky proposition
to have two actors portray the same character, in this case it works. Hatosy
captures the devil-may-care of Nolte's Vinnie. A blonde Williams vamps
as Rosie, yet sows the seeds for the depressed woman that Stone
has become. Waite is perhaps the best of the three, capturing Bridges'
mannerisms and walk and demonstrating the brooding underside to the
successful made man. But the real meat of the film is in watching three
pros work. Bridges and Nolte forge an easygoing, believable camaraderie
and their symbiotic relationship is played out both figuratively and literally
(with Vinnie posing as Carter and Carter allowing himself to turn slovenly
and sloppy). Nolte also excels in his scenes with Stone. While her role
is relatively brief (she doesn't appear completely on camera until some
thirty minutes into the film), Stone tears into her scenes and offers a
potent look at a woman bruised by self-loathing. In just a few scenes,
Stone etches a memorable character and reminds everyone just how
powerful a dramatic actress she can be.
This seems to be the season for stage directors to make their film
debuts (e.g., Sam Mendes with AMERICAN BEAUTY, Julie Taymor with
TITUS, Scott Elliott with A MAP OF THE WORLD, Deborah Warner with
THE LAST SEPTEMBER). Each has had varying degrees of success and
Warchus can easily take his place alongside this group. What they all
have in common is an affinity with actors; the technical side of filmmaking
proves more problematic to grasp. To his credit, Warchus hired one of the
best directors of photography, Oscar-winner John Toll, whose work
includes LEGENDS OF THE FALL and Terrence Malick's remake of
THE THIN RED LINE. Toll bathes the film in the appropriate hues
employing a glossy sheen for the contemporary sequences and a grainier
look for the flashbacks. The other technical credits are fine.
Warchus makes a fine debut, although I suspect this film will be one
of those like Paul Thomas Anderson's MAGNOLIA that one either embraces
or rejects. For those willing to see top notch actors at the height of their
prowess, I woulG recommend SIMPATICO highly.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexuality, and for language
Running time: 106 mins.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.