Friday, February 25, 2000

Saddled with secrets

Movie: Simpatico

Posted on Fri, Feb 25, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 3.00

The lost opportunities and failed relationships of youth usually diminish in importance or simply fade from memory with the passing of time. It becomes ever easier to settle into the routines and rituals of adult life, focus on the future and allow old sins to remain buried. Why dig up the past, especially when it might be uglier than memory serves?

It's a long-hidden moral failing -- albeit a seriously weighty one -- that haunts the three tortured souls at the center of "Simpatico," an intermittently compelling drama directed by Tony-nominated British theater director Matthew Warchus and based on the 1994 play by Sam Shepard. And were its performances less disjointed and several symbolism-laden sequences not quite so overstated, Warchus' film might be as disturbing as it intends.

Gambling is the chief, overinflated metaphor here: A particularly seamy scam related to a horse race is the decades-old sin that has metastasized into a cancer in the lives of millionaire Kentucky breeder Lyle Carter (Jeff Bridges), his morose, booze-hound wife, Rosie (Sharon Stone), and their mutual old friend, Vinnie (Nick Nolte), a grizzled, unkempt alcoholic who spends his days stumbling around a low-rent district of Los Angeles.

As detailed in flashbacks starring Liam Waite, Kimberly Williams and Shawn Hatosy, the three gambled their way into untold riches two decades ago. Their winnings came courtesy of a dirty deal done at the expense of Simms (Albert Finney), a racing official who wouldn't be bribed. Simms subsequently lost his job and family and was railroaded out of town, only to disappear for a while before showing up with a new identity. Reinvention, in his case, was possible.

Vinnie, his straw-like hair hanging in a ruddy, worry-worn face, hasn't made anything of himself since that big race so long ago, and he's suddenly stricken with an attack of conscience that won't be resolved unless he lures Carter to the West Coast. The two bicker, dredging up ancient wrongs, until Vinnie makes his plea: "Let me off the hook," he begs. "I'm not your jailer," his former friend retorts.

The key to the unlocking of that particular prison, oddly enough, might be carried by Cecilia (Catherine Keener, 180 degrees away from her familiar ice-princess roles), an unworldly but wise supermarket checker and the recent object of Vinnie's affections. The future of the three old co-conspirators depends in part on the success of Cecilia's mission of mercy to visit Simms, who now works as a tracer of bloodlines.

Rosie begins to take center stage toward the end of the film, and Stone grabs attention with a showy, off-the-mark but fascinating performance as the wronged and fallen woman. This awkwardly paced noir also throws in the suggestion of an identity exchange, as one character gradually begins to look and act like his rival. Pointed cross-cutting is meant to accentuate the effect. It's a conceit, like much of "Simpatico," that doesn't quite jell.


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