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SIMPATICO

by: James Berardinelli

There's a certain irony in calling this movie Simpatico - something I'm sure playwright Sam Shepard was aware of when he devised the title of the theatrical production upon which debut director Matthew Warchus based his film. The word "simpatico", as defined in any English-language dictionary, means "congenial" or "likable" - two words that would not be used to describe any of the four main characters who comprise the psychological rectangle that underlies the story's foundation.

Simpatico is basically a multiple character study with a heavy element of mystery thrown in for good measure. It's not really a thriller, at least not in the traditional sense, because very little happens during the course of the movie's 1:46 running time, and there's rarely more than a minimal sense of suspense or tension. Instead, the film is much more an examination of the way in which a series of events in the past have been magnified, not erased, by the passage of years, and how the consequences have inextricably bound together four lives in a twisted web of lies, guilt, and regret.

Simpatico possesses a great cast - Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney, Catherine Keener, and Sharon Stone - but there's a sense that these actors are spinning their wheels in a story that should have been more compelling. The film starts out strongly, but loses steam along the way. By the time the viewer reaches the finish line, a sense of dissatisfaction is almost impossible to shake off. Instead of permitting its characters to be developed naturally, Simpatico manipulates them to fulfill the needs of its heavy-handed plot.

The film opens with a phone call between two men who appear to be polar opposites. Lyle Carter (Jeff Bridges) is a well-dressed, cigar-chewing executive who is in the process of brokering a multi-million dollar deal to sell his prized possession: a Triple Crown-winning horse named Simpatico. On the other end of the phone, half the country away, is Vinnie (Nick Nolte), an unkempt, badly shaven, slovenly dressed loser. His plaintive demand, "Get out here now! This is an emergency!" impels Carter to jump on the next plane bound for California. Once there, he meets Vinnie and we learn that these two are constrained by a long, mutual history, and that Vinnie has in his possession some sort of evidence that can ruin Carter. "You're in no position to tell me what to do," Vinnie warns ominously. "I'm the one holding the cards."

By duping his old friend, Vinnie orchestrates a kind of identity swap that has him on a plane to Kentucky with Carter's wallet in his pocket, while Carter is stuck behind in Vinnie's dump of a home, relying on a local supermarket check-out clerk, Cecilia (Katherine Keener), for help. However, although despair eventually gets the best of Carter and he gives up, Vinnie is driven by both a need for revenge and an even stronger desire for redemption. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that, many years ago, Vinnie, Carter, and Vinnie's girlfriend, Rose, were involved in a scam that ruined the life and reputation of Simms (Albert Finney), the former Commissioner of Racing in Southern California. Now, Vinnie is intent upon finding Simms and, through him, finding the path to restoration. But Simms doesn't want to hear about the past, nor does Rose (Sharon Stone), who is now Carter's alcoholic wife.

The character interaction presented in this film is of some interest. The flashbacks, which gradually bring to light some of the details of Vinnie, Carter, and Rose's lurid scheme, plug a few of the gaps in the current-day dialogue. However, while Simpatico contains its share of intriguing material, there is a serious flaw to be reckoned with. This problem resides in the writing, and results in poor character motivation and a lack of internal logic. The choices these characters make are badly reasoned at best, and often make no sense whatsoever.

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