Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Simpatico

By Russell Smith

MARCH 6, 2000: 

D: Matthew Warchus; with Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Catherine Keener, Sharon Stone, Albert Finney, Shawn Hatosy, Kimberly Williams, Liam Waite. (R, 106 min.)

Here's further proof that playwrights think very differently from most people. (Their brains, if diagrammed medical-textbook style, would be divided into large, primary-hued areas labeled Vengeance, Inexorable Fate, Blighted Innocence, and God Is Dead.) When transferred to the screen, this world view tends to yield movies that are strong in terms of structure and dramatic focus but also, in many cases, distractingly schematic and lacking in the multilayered appeal to the senses, mind, and heart that is film's great strength. There's more than a hint of this pathology going on in Simpatico, which first-time director Warchus has adapted from a little-known Sam Shepard play. Its story, about three people haunted by their long-ago involvement in a successful blackmail and horse-race-fixing scam, is apt to strike many viewers as a predictable lockstep march toward Old Testament-style moral reckoning. In a plot that manages to be both ingenious and oddly dull, the wrongdoers all receive personalized comeuppances based upon their roles in the sordid plot and the degree to which their consciences bothered them afterward. A lesser quibble ­ though one that'll surely occur to anyone who hasn't been living in a tent in Tierra del Fuego for the past 30 years or so ­ is how laughably minor the sin in question is. These days, folks who engage in this kind of piss-ant sex-and-greed chicanery don't suffer the pitiless judgment of tragic fate. They get six-month hitches in minimum-security prison followed by lucrative movie-of-the-week contracts. Still, for all its flaws, Simpatico deserves to be seen for the remarkably vibrant and affecting performances turned in by its top-notch cast. At the center of the story, Nolte and Bridges both tap their idiosyncratic talents to good effect as radically dissimilar men joined forever by one life-changing act of moral transgression. While we in the audience may question many of the filmmakers' judgments and conceits, their stars have bought in wholeheartedly. Their faith in this material is so complete that we're forced at least to entertain the possibility that the emotional impact they're generating is inherent in the writing and not just a byproduct of actorly razzle-dazzle. As good as the two fiftyish hunks emeritus are, Keener, Stone, and Finney are even better in small but crucial supporting roles. Stone, playing a woman who's been a lover and accomplice to both Nolte and Bridges, has only two big scenes but they're among the best in the film ­ fearless, unforgettable, and indispensable to the story. Keener and Finney are the farthest from the action, yet their sane, measured responses to the anguished garment-rending going on all are blessed reminders of the eternal possibility of redemption. This slight grain of hope is all the more welcome because it knocks some of the flinty Calvinistic edges off the story and allows it to end with, not the unmitigated despair and abjection we've been dreading, but a rueful, clear-eyed understanding of human frailty.

2.5 Stars

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