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Simpatico

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 17 December 1999

Directed by Matthew Warchus.

Starring Nick Nolte, 
Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, 
Catherine Keener and Albert  Finney.

Written by Matthew Warchus
and David Nicholls, 
based on the stage play by  
Sam Shepard.

With few exceptions, the work of Sam Shepard has proven difficult to  adapt to the screen, and Simpatico, based on Shepard's 1994 play, is no  different. Adapted by the British stage director Matthew Warcus and  co-screenwriter David Nicholls, it manages to involve a great many talented  people, both in front of and behind the camera, as it sinks, inexorably but  inevitably, off the screen.

Scruffy, oddly disheveled Vinnie (Nick Nolte) places an emergency phone  call to old friend Carter (Jeff Bridges), the wealthy proprietor of a  thoroughbred horse-breeding ranch in Kentucky, and Carter drops everything in  order to rush out to California and help him. Once there, Vinnie pulls a fast  one on Carter, strands him there, and rockets by plane to Kentucky, carrying  a box full of incriminating evidence involving a scandal that took place twenty years before. Over an hour of screen time elapses before we even begin to get any sort of clear picture as to what is happening and why the characters are  behaving the way they do.

The filmmakers' deliberate withholding of information on the characters' background and motives, which they then piece out to us a little bit at a  time, does not draw us further into the action, in fact, does quite the  opposite: after a while, we begin to have less and less of a reason to even  continue watching these people. Some of the action (Carter's abrupt change in character, for example) is never entirely explained, while other parts of the film's plot  (why the twenty-year gap in events?) donít even make any sense.

Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges try, but even they can't make anything out of ciphers. Sharon Stone, as the girl both men loved in their youth and, now, has become a recluse in Carter's big Kentucky home, isn't even brought  on-screen until well into the picture's second hour. When she does appear, she does some interesting work, but, in one of the most egregious errors I've  seen in any recent film, her most important scene, when her character  suddenly moves from lassitude to moral outrage, is wrecked by botched editing  and unnecessary visual effects.

On the other hand, Albert Finney, playing a former racing commissioner, movingly conveys the look and feel of someone who's had to live for years with the weight of past indiscretions inside him. The biggest surprise in Simpatico turns out to be Catherine Keener, seen earlier this year as the sublimely perverse Maxine ("The puppet guy asked me out. Isn't that pathetic?") in Being John Malkovich. Here, she plays a completely different character, a genuinely honest and caring woman, and she does so with  absolute, unerring precision, believability, and craft.

Just for your information: Simpatico is the name of a horse.


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