An unbeatable cast lends satisfying emotional texture to “Simpatico,” a melancholy comedy adapted by Brit stage vet turned first-time feature helmer Matthew Warchus (with David Nicholls) from Sam Shepard’s 1994 play. Determinedly low-key pic, more impressive in its fine-tuned details than overall resonance, likely will ride good reviews and the marquee names — Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte, Sharon Stone — to middling B.O. pull to respectable, if modest, results when Fine Line opens it Stateside on Dec. 17.
Received as another lesser latter-day work from the Pulitzer-winning playwright-thesp when first mounted at the N.Y. Shakespeare Festival (with Ed Harris, Fred Ward and Beverly D’Angelo in the leads), “Simpatico” gets a considerable overhaul in its translation here, one that admirably shakes off the stagy artificiality that dogged prior Shepard legit-to-screen efforts “Fool for Love” and “Curse of the Starving Class.” If story’s more somber currents about friendship, penitence and facing the past still don’t cut as deep as one might wish, the first-rate acting roster’s committed turns nonetheless make this thoughtful and appealing entertainment.
The opening is a flurry of crosscuts as bedraggled, booze-swilling Vinnie (Nolte) places a phone-booth call cross-country to wealthy racehorse breeder Carter (Bridges), alleging that he’s been arrested for harassment — and vaguely threatening the disclosure of some long-buried mutual secrets if help isn’t proffered pronto. Although he’s in final negotiations to sell his prize stallion (who carries the title as moniker), a panicked Carter hurriedly flies to the SoCal backwater where he and Vinnie grew up.
Once there, the multimillionaire is soon rattled by his erstwhile pal’s evasiveness and button pushing; he’s been footing the bill for Vinnie’s squalid lifestyle for many years, paying for his silence about a mysterious cachet of “documents” rooted in their youthful history. Vinnie says he’s willing to turn this incriminating evidence over once and for all if Carter gets him off the hook with Cecilia (Catherine Keener), a supermarket cashier-cum-fling who has supposedly pressed charges.
But this turns out to be a ruse — once Carter is deposited at a bewildered Cecilia’s doorstep (learning she’s filed no such complaint), Vinnie steals former’s rental car and hightails it to the airport, promptly flying back East. Carter is left marooned with his cell phone, helpless to prevent his privileged life’s seemingly imminent ruination.
Flashbacks woven throughout slowly reveal the circumstances that seeded this long-in-coming payback. Over two decades earlier, ambitious upstarts Carter (Liam Waite), Vinnie (Shawn Hatosy) and latter’s g.f. Rosie (Kimberly Williams) pulled a scam that won them big returns at a racetrack. But local racing commissioner Simms (Albert Finney) got wise; the trio in turn concocted an ugly blackmail scheme that ended up costing the elder man his family, career and dignity.
Vinnie tracks down this former victim, now living under an assumed name, offering a ratty duct-taped shoe box of photos that will “vindicate an innocent man” after 20-odd years. But Simms doesn’t respond as expected; he’s willing to “let sleeping dogs lie.” Unsatisfied, and still in need of some score-settling or soul-cleansing action, Vinnie moves onto a Kentucky mansion where Rosie (Stone) is ensconced as Carter’s dissolute, unhappy wife.
Meanwhile, Carter has sunk into boozy resignation at Vinnie’s dumpy pad — though not before begging Cecilia to fly East and make a last-ditch plea on his behalf to Simms. In the end, the past’s cumulative guilt, bitterness and sorrow are laid to rest — albeit messily — as the three central characters destroy its surviving physical totems.
The ties that once happily bound them together aren’t nearly as vivid as the present day’s fractiousness, despite decent turns by Hatosi, Waite and Williams in the 1970s-set segments. This leaves the tale with less emotional weight than desired once the haunted back story’s full repercussions become clear. Still, Warchus’ accomplished handling and the stars’ flavorful performances lend “Simpatico” a bittersweet grace; there’s also considerable sly humor, much of it from Shepard’s remaining original dialogue.
Bridges brings his usual naturalistic restraint to Carter’s initially terrified, then bemused free fall; Nolte is in agreeable antic form as another ill-kempt loser who’s determined to clean a very dirty personal slate. Stone makes a strong late impression as a woman who’s obviously been beating herself up for past mistakes well past the expiration date. Finney (looking rather like Eugene Pallette these days) offers a beautifully reined-in sketch of sardonic acceptance; his scenes with Keener — once again proving herself among the finest rising screen thesps as the one unsullied, decent character here — are especially sharp.
John Toll’s muted, handsome lensing is well-matched to the overall rueful tenor; editor Pascquale Buba juggles a complex narrative load with clarity and insinuating pacing, while Stewart Copeland’s score adds textures both gritty and ethereal. Tech aspects on the Euro-financed picture (co-produced by Nolte’s Kingsgate Film, which debuted with his 1998 “Affliction”) are polished.