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Review: 'Simpatico' -- Sam Shepard's wayward flock

February 17, 2000
Web posted at: 3:47 p.m. EST (2047 GMT)

(CNN) -- British theater director Matthew Warchus' film adaptation of Sam Shepard's off-Broadway play "Simpatico" is a grind to watch, and most of the fault can be traced to Shepard. The movie proves again that a guy can get a hell of a lot of mileage out of writing "True West."

Shepard may be a playwright-actor-musician, but the majority of his plays makes you wish that he'd focus more on his drumming -- a more pleasant form of pounding. And if Shepard decides to wander through an overwrought solo, at least bemused patrons can go get a shot of whiskey at the bar.

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"Simpatico" features a couple of watchable performances while centering around the same mysterious identities and dying-frontier metaphors that Shepard always trots out. The best that can be said for the story itself is that it's not as formless as you might expect, considering the source. Shepard's willful vagaries maintain some semblance of shape this time around, though that doesn't make them any more worthy of a feature film.

His characters, as usual, talk in circles, even while they're confessing to each other. That makes everything seem more like art. Or something.

Memory of an old crime

The plot jumps back and forth in time as three young blackmailers pull a scam, only to have the memory of their misdeeds eat them alive years later. Vinnie (Nick Nolte) is a wasted alcoholic who's holding a shoe box full of incriminating photos. He has suddenly developed a conscience about his past, for reasons that are proudly unclear for most of the film. Not so his partners in that long-ago crime, Lyle (Jeff Bridges) and Rosie (Sharon Stone, who's barely in the movie). They're married now and living the high life in Kentucky.

Lyle is closing a multi-million-dollar deal on the racehorse, Simpatico, when his buddy gives him a call. Vinnie's supposedly in a jam and needs Lyle to fly to California to help him out. Lyle grudgingly high-tails it to the golden state, but Vinnie is hardly worth the ticket.

Vinnie, who growls a lot, is incredibly filthy. He'd apparent be well served by a full-body shampoo job. Nolte is apparently required by law to play this character in every third film that he makes. Vinnie staggers around town guzzling booze and making cryptic remarks until Lyle shows up. Then Vinnie tries to get his old partner to confess their crime to the FBI.

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Multi-millionaire Lyle is in no mood to 'fess up, so Vinnie throws a hissy fit. All that gets him is a promise that Lyle will use gift of smooth talk to patch up a rift between Vinnie and his perplexed girlfriend, Cecilia (Katherine Keener). But Vinnie takes off with Lyle's car and wallet while Lyle's laying on the charm. He hops a plane to Kentucky, where he finally takes a shower. There, he and Rosie enter into more arguing, gun waving and belittling.

Transcontinental role reversal

Over on the West Coast, meanwhile, Lyle gets more disheveled, adopting Vinnie's grubby veneer while Vinnie takes on Lyle's gracefulness.

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When you get right down to it, who cares?

Bridges supplies his usual solid performance, but the uninteresting character with which he's saddled forces you to spend most of your time marveling at how great he looks after all these years. He's as handsome as Nolte is smelly-looking -- and that's pretty darn handsome. Albert Finney is also on hand as the horse-racing commissioner who was blackmailed by the gang all those years ago. He's supremely sleazy, which perfectly suits the overall tone of the film.

But the real winner is Keener. She stole each of her scenes in "Being John Malkovich" and walks away with this one, too. Shepard deserves credit for at least writing one believable human being. Cecilia is driven by a surprisingly complex wholesomeness, making her the chipped, candy-coated heart in a crate of rotten tomatoes. Keener is growing increasingly assured with each performance. Filmgoers may not have predicted it five years ago, but she's turning into a remarkable, if decidedly off-kilter, actress.


There's violence, profanity and lots of yelling in "Simpatico." There's also a scene in which two horses are shown fornicating. And they barely know each other. Rated R. 106 minutes.



RELATED STORY:
Review: 'Snow Falling on Cedars' a visual feast
January 7, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Official 'Simpatico' site
Fine Line Features

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