Wednesday December 15, 1999

     "Simpatico," a neo-noirish tale of deception and redemption, finds a sleek, rich Kentucky racehorse breeder (Jeff Bridges) in negotiations to sell a Triple Crown winner (which gives the film its title) when he's interrupted by an urgent call from an unkempt man (Nick Nolte) at a pay phone not far from Cucamonga. Reluctantly, Bridges' Carter departs the meeting for what is supposed to be a quick emergency trip to California. But it becomes a devastating journey into the past.
     Nolte's Vinnie has a hold on Carter and insists that he personally persuade a young supermarket cashier (Catherine Keener) not to press charges of sexual harassment against him. When Carter has a meeting with Keener's perplexed Cecilia he quickly learns that although she's been seeing Vinnie for a while, he's no more than kissed her--and that just once. The next thing Carter knows, Vinnie, who has been parked across the street from Cecilia's apartment, drives off in Carter's rented car. A role reversal has just commenced.
     The flashbacks begin, introducing us to the Vinnie (Shawn Hatosy) and Carter (Liam Waite) and their pal Rosie (Kimberly Williams) of 20 years before. They are a trio of young sharpies with a get-rich-quick horse-racing scam that involves substituting a slow horse for a fast one and cashing in by betting high odds.
     It also involves buying a horse-racing commissioner's silence by setting him up with Rosie for some rough sex and then blackmailing him. (So traumatized is Rosie by the encounter that, for good measure, she makes a couple of phone calls that destroy the commissioner's career and marriage.)
     Carter has become the success he intended, but at a price. Over the years he's forked over several hundred thousand dollars to Vinnie, with a clutch of incriminating evidence, to keep him silent. Rosie (Sharon Stone) has ended up Carter's hard-drinking, chain-smoking wife, with whom he shares a vast faux chateau, the acme of nouveau-riche vulgarity, in Lexington.
     After all these years, Vinnie has become a virtual derelict, posing as a private eye and living in a messy cottage--entirely at Carter's expense. But at long last Vinnie has had it and tells himself he can reclaim the past. He's discovered that the racing commissioner (Albert Finney) has changed his name and become a bloodline agent, tracing racehorses' genealogy for a fee and living not far from Carter.
     Vinnie assumes Finney's Simms will be only too happy to buy a box of incriminating photos; in the meantime, Carter has persuaded Cecilia to go to Simms in his behalf and ask him to name his price, for they have the potential for destroying the lives of both Carter and Rosie.
     The cast of "Simpatico" is so good that you wish debuting director Matthew Warchus, who with co-writer David Nicholls adapted Sam Shepard's play of the same name, could have pulled off the film with less strain and more clarity. Although it's true that you would never guess that the film had begun as a play, it's also true that Warchus can't quite meet the challenge of involving us with three people whose innocence was lost well before we meet them. They may have been naive in their youth about the long-term consequences of their actions, but they are completely aware of their own criminality.
     Nolte, Bridges and Stone (who doesn't appear until one hour into the film but, once there, gets to tear into some all-stops-out Barbara Stanwyck histrionics) are adept at conveying the toll exacted from living lives built on lies and destruction. But for their--and Finney's--solid contributions to pay off, the film needs to seem more anchored in real life and less derived from other movies. Keener has considerable charm as the plucky but unsophisticated Cecilia, who hasn't a clue as to what she's getting into.
     Much effort and expertise have gone into the making of "Simpatico," but, while it's entertaining, it's not as persuasive as it needs to be to succeed fully.

Simpatico, 1999. R, for strong sexuality and language. A Fine Line Features presentation. Writer-director Matthew Warchus. Producers Dan Lupovitz, Timm Oberwelland, Jean-Francois Fonlupt. Executive producers Sue Baden-Powell, Joel Lubin, Greg Shapiro. Co-writer David Nicholls; screenplay based on a play by Sam Shepard. Cinematographer John Toll. Editor Pasquale Buba. Costumes Karen Patch. Production designer Amy Ancona. Art director Andrew Laws. Set decorator Ellen Brill. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Nick Nolte as Vinnie. Jeff Bridges as Carter. Sharon Stone as Rosie. Catherine Keener as Cecilia. Albert Finney as Simms[.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times