Simpatico (review)

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The Play’s the Thing

Stage plays often don’t translate well to the big screen, and such is the case with Simpatico, adapted and directed by Matthew Warchus from a play by Sam Shepard. A nearly static character study, Simpatico might work within the intimate confines of a proscenium, despite the ridiculous premise at its core, but with film’s wider expanse, it falls disappointingly flat.

Twenty-plus years ago, Vinnie (Nick Nolte: The Thin Red Line, Affliction; as a young man, Shawn Hatosy: Outside Providence, The Faculty), Carter (Jeff Bridges: Arlington Road; the younger, Liam Waite), and Rosie (Sharon Stone: Sphere; as a young woman, Kimberly Williams) had a nice horse-racing scam going in California, winning big on races they were fixing. Racing commissioner Simms (Albert Finney: Tom Jones) copped on to them, so they set him up — motel room, girl, sex, two-way mirror, photographs; the usual — and blackmailed him to keep him quiet.
Today, Vinnie is still haunted by what they did, and keeps the ratty shoebox containing the photos and negatives close at hand. Down and out in a seedy California town, Vinnie lives on booze and pretends to be a private investigator in order to woo supermarket clerk Cecilia (Catherine Keener: Being John Malkovich, 8MM), a naïf of a woman who is crazy about Vinnie. Carter seems to have left the past behind — he’s a big-time racer in Kentucky — but when Vinnie calls him and asks him to come out to the coast, Carter hops on a plane: he lives in fear that Vinnie will someday tell all about what they did. In fact, Carter has been paying off Vinnie to keep him quiet.

Ah, what a tangled web. Lies beget lies, and the title of the film refers not only to the Triple Crown-winning horse, Simpatico, Carter is about to sell for a small fortune, but also the same wavelength of deception and bribery that Carter and Vinnie vibrate on. But the central conflict of the film relies on Carter’s worry that the crimes of his past might come to light, which makes little sense. Not only has the statute of limitations long expired, eliminating the chance of legal prosecution, but his reputation within the horse-racing community isn’t likely to be endangered by what these days passes for youthful indiscretion. And so much is made about the “specifically amoral photos” Vinnie now has in his possession that I imagined they must show Simms in sexual congress with a horse or something. But, no: they depict ordinary, albeit depressingly boring and pathetic, sex acts. The quaintness the characters evince simply isn’t appropriate for the worldly wise arena of horse racing.

Ultimately, though, Simpatico is frustrating in the way that plays often are: not much happens, not much changes, and the story is merely about revealing that the way things are. Carter gets stuck in Vinnie’s sad little world, and Vinnie moves himself into Carter’s winner’s circle — as the two men metamorphose into each other, we see the tiny distance that exists between two seemingly very different men. But that’s not enough to sustain a nearly two-hour movie.

The always-reliable Bridges and Keener don’t do themselves any damage here, but Stone — when she finally appears an hour into the film — and Nolte are so overblown and over the top that it seems the director had little control over them. Nolte does little but revisit his Down and Out in Beverly Hills performance, and Stone appears to be channeling Blanche DuBois, moving from petulance to rage without a stop in between.

I’ll say a good word for Stewart Copeland’s score, though. It may lend an electric urgency to a story that doesn’t have any, but the music is really cool.

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