Simpatico

Most of Sam Shepard’s major themes are present in Simpatico, the new Matthew Warchus film that Warchus and David Nicholls adapted from Shepard’s play. Buried enmities, porous identities, falls from grace, talk of bloodlines, and troubled male bonds are woven through the movie, sometimes in highly imaginative form. Yet even though it’s elegantly shot and boasts an eye-popping cast, Simpatico is only a middling good film. What it really needs is a little more Sam Shepard.

Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges star as Vinnie and Lyle, two long-time friends now separated by physical, moral, and psychological distances. Vinnie (Nolte) is a schizophrenic living in Los Angeles. He looks like a homeless person (he probably would be one if Lyle didn’t act as his patron) and spends his days in a nearly delusional state. (He passes himself off to the world as a private detective.) At least on the surface, Lyle (Bridges) has it much better: he sits on top of the world, married to his high-school sweetheart, Rosie (Sharon Stone), and leads the life of a country squire on their beautiful Kentucky horse farm. The two men’s surfaces reflect their attitudes toward the event in their past that put them where they are today – the horserace they (and Rosie) fixed when they were youths, and their subsequent blackmailing, and ruination, of the racing commissioner (Albert Finney) who stood in their way. Their paths cross again when Vinnie lures Lyle to L.A. under a false pretext, then takes off with Lyle’s wallet and a shoebox of evidence linking them to their past crimes, intending to clear up some unfinished business in Kentucky. In the 48 hours that the story spans, the two friends manage to swap identities, the emissary (Catherine Keener) that Lyle sends after Vinnie finds her own life being changed, and the former commissioner has to undergo one more ordeal with the people who destroyed him.

Nick Nolte’s performance is almost on a par with his work in Affliction. Lately this man has been so locked in to his characters, and acting with such a fierce purpose of heart, that sometimes a double take is needed to register that it’s the same guy who earlier in his career seemed so blocked and inexact. And it’s wonderful to watch Nolte and Bridges in their extended one-on-one scenes together: you can see the two men engage with each other (they look like they’ve known each other a long time), and they meld their acting styles together in a way big-name actors rarely do nowadays. (More common is the two-ships-passing-in-the-night display that Bridges and Tim Robbins gave us in Arlington Road.)

Meanwhile, Finney stages his own little clinic within the movie. Simms, the disgraced racing commissioner, is the movie’s most interesting character, a toasted man who’s now so wary of everything that he talks about the past only as an abstraction. Finney plays him just right, his clear-eyed waiting quality just barely masking Simms’ fury and pain. The weak link in the chain is Sharon Stone. To be fair, she’s caught in a thankless part – Rosie is a burned-out ex-beauty – but Stone doesn’t try to blend in the way Finney does. Instead, she takes the path of greatest resistance and does a Big Drunk routine – a fatal mistake, especially in her already delicate scenes.

Simpatico is like a Cliff’s Notes version of Sam Shepard – it lays out all of his themes for easy digestion and keeps the pace moving. Warchus has defused most of the mannerisms that put many people off of Shepard’s plays: the anarchic sense of rue is cooled off, and the scent of allegory isn’t as pungent. (It’s also suspenseful, a nearly anti-Shepard quality.) But if Simpatico is Shepard made accessible, it’s also Shepard made predictable. The movie can’t hide the coming identity switch, which in the Malkovich-Sinise version of True West seemed ghastly precisely because it was unthinkable. Warchus also could have saved his viewers a lot of confusion by switching around the two young men cast as Vinnie and Lyle in the flashbacks: the wrong one of them looks almost exactly like Bridges did in The Last Picture Show. Simpatico’s lowest moment comes when it resorts to outright melodrama in a bedroom confrontation late in the movie; Stone can be seen acting so hard that you think she’s going to pull something.

That all said, something warm and real comes through in Nolte’s and Finney’s performances, and Simpatico never runs out of ideas. Warchus and cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red Line) came up with some wonderful shadowy camerawork, and they were smart enough to do things like subtly contrast the two men’s exterior landscapes, the concrete wastelands and scrub-covered hillsides of Southern California against the oceans of manicured lawn flowing over Lyle’s estate. In its best moments, Simpatico communicates the guilt and fear that live on after our youthful indiscretions, and the gnawing sense that one’s life can be undone by a phone call from your oldest friend.

Tom Block