Horses and histrionics.

ON PAPER, Simpatico seems like a good bet. The script is adapted from a 1994 play by the estimable Sam Shepard and performed by a bang-up, Oscar-bait cast. Most importantly, the plot is chock full of spicy ingredients (double-crosses, Faustian bargains, and love triangles), all wrapped up in the exciting setting of high-stakes thoroughbred racing.


directed by Matthew Warchus

with Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte, Sharon Stone, and Albert Finney

opens February 4 at Pacific Place

At the heart of matter is a long-ago horse-swapping scam pulled off by Vinnie (Nick Nolte), Carter (Jeff Bridges), and Vinnie's then-girlfriend Rosie (Sharon Stone). Much later, middle-aged Carter is a wealthy horse broker unhappily married to the now-alcoholic Rosie. Vinnie has become a burned-out loser still smarting over the loss of his girl, and he stirs up trouble by trying to peddle the evidence of their distant crime to various players. By desperately trying to placate Vinnie, Carter derails his own life. Will Vinnie win back Rosie? Will Vinnie and Carter, former best friends, kill each other?

Though rife with such conflict, Simpatico ends up an utter, boring mess. What happened?

Director Matthew Warchus has an accomplished stage background, but Simpatico is his first film, and it shows. Key plot points are muddled and characters' motivations are mystifying, while the pace is flat and meandering. The script is full of obvious contrivances and clich餠speeches. As for the flashbacks to our youthful trio of cons—the less said the better.

Given such heavy-handed dialogue and addled direction, Bridges and Nolte sleepwalk through their scenes, content to let their hairstyles do the acting. Nolte's Vinny goes from down-and-out scruffy to schemer-slick and back again. Bridges' Carter merely descends into follicle chaos. Stone saunters in an hour and 10 minutes into the movie, lets loose some general screeching, then vanishes. (Exactly how much did she get paid?) In short, the main characters are unknowable and unlikable.

Thankfully, a couple of bright spots shine through the murk. Finney turns in a creepy and complex performance as a horse commissioner brought down by the threesome. Even better, the always wonderful Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) manages to infuse her second-banana role with wit, warmth, and believability. But the charms of these two old pros can't relieve the tedium. (For better Shepard adaptations, rent True West, Fool for Love, or Paris, Texas.) Of course, the fact that this film is quietly being released in the doldrums of January is a good tip that Simpatico is anything but a winner.

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