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With: Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, Catherine Keener, Albert Finney, Shawn Hatosy, Kimberly Williams, Liam Waite
Written by: Matthew Warchus, David Nicholls, based on a play by Sam Shepard
Directed by: Matthew Warchus
MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexuality, and for language
Running Time: 106
Date: 09/15/1999
IMDB

Simpatico (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Thoroughbreds

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

English theater director Matthew Warchus makes his movie directorial debut with Simpatico and it doesn't fare very well in comparison to two other recent theater-to-film debuts: Sam Mendes with American Beauty and Julie Taymor with Titus. Mendes and Taymor seem to have the stuff to make gorgeous pictures that move. But Warchus' adaptation of Sam Shepard's Simpatico (co-written by David Nicholls) sort of thumps along, moving in fits from the staging.

One thing all three films have in common however is superior acting. The acting in Simpatico in particular is top-notch and accompanied by some great Sam Shepard dialogue, making it worth a view.

Simpatico derives its name from the prized steed that owner Lyle Carter (Jeff Bridges) is about to offer up at auction. In flashback we learn that Lyle was involved in some illegal transactions at the racetrack with his wife Rosie (Sharon Stone) and a ragged bum, Vincent Webb (Nick Nolte), who lives in a run-down little house. Their actions have caused Simms (Albert Finney), who was a big cheese at the races in those days, to change his name and disappear. But when Bridges' assistant, Cecilia (Catherine Keener, now famous for her role in Being John Malkovich), goes on an errand she ends up on Simms' doorstep.

If the plot seems a little vague, it is. It's one of those "mystery" stories whose real purpose is not to reveal itself to us, but to instead say a little something deeper about human identity. (This is the same noble theme that is driving critics wild over The Talented Mr. Ripley.) Without giving too much away you will see that, by the end of this movie, Lyle and Vincent will have effectively switched places.

Simpatico premiered October of 1999 at the Mill Valley Film Festival about the same time as the play itself was being staged in San Francisco. Although I didn't see the play myself, a theater colleague who saw it confirmed that the movie is somewhat dumbed down from its source. Nicholls and Warchus added the flashbacks of the young Lyle, Vincent, and Rosie to appease audience members who might not automatically catch the plot's nuances. Though I suspect the movie would have worked a lot better without them. Because the younger characters are played by different actors (Shawn Hatosy, Liam Waite, and Kimberly Williams), the sequences have the feeling of being tacked-on. These flashbacks also spell out literally what happened to the characters, whereas in the play we're deliberately kept in the dark. We should have been able to get to know the characters better through their actions in the present day. Their past would simply have been implied.

Despite these problems Simpatico offers us five outstanding actors saying great lines and most of us are junkies for great performances, even if the movie isn't so hot. Just look at Man on the Moon (1999), which is a perfect example of lackluster filmmaking with a spectacular performance at its the center. I've been recommending that movie to people a lot lately, simply because they've "got to see Jim Carrey do his stuff."

In Simpatico though I'd like to especially single out Sharon Stone's performance because she's really had short shrift over the last decade. She's perhaps one of our finest actors/movie stars, a classic, in league with someone like, say, Gene Tierney or maybe even Grace Kelly, but still looking for that great role. This movie offers an example of what she's capable of doing.

But everyone in Simpatico is good. It's just the packaging that's not so good.