Afairly typical tale of young talent on the rise in Nashville is given nicely nuanced treatment in “The Thing Called Love.” There’s not much new to say about the determination and disappointments involved in breaking into country music, but the scenes are fresh and the emotions feel real in Peter Bogdanovich’s music-laden, mixed-mood drama. To have any kind of B.O. chance against bigger-name entries, film would need a special push. Limited release in mostly rural areas won’t help.
Debuting screenwriter Carol Heikkinen’s story seems familiar from the outset, as cute aspiring singer-songwriter Miranda Presley (Samantha Mathis) Greyhounds from New York City to Nashville in search of her dream.
She takes a waitress job at the Bluebird Cafe when her first audition at its “open mike night” doesn’t land her a gig and shortly moves in with the buoyantly untalented Linda Lue Linden (Sandra Bullock). Miranda attracts the attention of the moody, gifted James Wright (River Phoenix) and soulful Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney), who writes better than he sings.
Partial to writing alone in the diner across the road from her motel, Miranda can’t reciprocate Kyle’s earnest emotions. She is alternately tantalized and infuriated by James, but is ultimately drawn to him at a big country dance for which the romantically hopeful Kyle had been her date.
While Kyle’s jealousy is partly mollified when Trisha Yearwood records one of his tunes, Miranda and James head for Memphis to see Graceland but end up getting married in an oddball ceremony conducted at an all-night convenience store. Among the film’s most potent scenes are those detailing the quick unraveling of this immature relationship.
Refusing cloying sentimentality and reassurance, wrap-up pleasingly, and realistically, leaves all the main characters at different places on the road between success and failure, and only partly reconciled to their fates and each other. Even if it doesn’t present anything resembling a comprehensive view of the Nashville music scene, it very credibly enters into the mind sets of the struggling artists.
Brought on to replace another director on relatively short notice, Bogdanovich hasn’t been able to transcend such fundamental script problems as its predictability and the conventional, thinly conceived secondary characters. But, like good country songwriters and singers, he and his leading actors have been able to locate authentic emotion in a standard format. His staging, camera setups and cutting have a rare suppleness and fluidity.
Blonde, alert and game, Mathis nicely carries the picture, drawing the viewer in without pleading for sympathy. Phoenix sharply etches a self-styled, hard-to-reach tough guy who’s really a scaredy-cat, and Mulroney registers well as a sensitive Eastern cowboy.
Unfortunately, Bullock can’t do anything but hit familiar notes with her cheerful second banana role, and other supporting thesps are one-dimensional.
Tech contributions on the relatively low-budget production are all solid.