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'SIMPATICO'

A British man in Shepard country

by Kaori Shoji

Sam Shepard, long known as the spokesman playwright of the American West, has a talent for endowing his cowboy-hatted characters with urban, neurotic psyches. The result has always been interesting. Now we get to see that firsthand in a film called “Simpatico,” based on his play of the same title. This involves Shepard’s favorite cast format of two guys and one woman, seemingly simple country folk who shoot coyote and square dance without a care in the world, but who turn out to be in desperate need of an expensive N.Y. shrink.

Sharon Stone in “Simpatico”

Directed by Britain’s Matthew Warchus, “Simpatico” comes in an All-American package: horses, racing and men fondling cigars, against the splendid backdrops of Lexington, Ky., and Cucamonga, Calif. Alas, all is not idyllic in bluegrass territory and we see that the main characters have ugly pasts, haunting them every hour, 20 years after the deed was done.

And what deed was this? “Simpatico” unravels the unsavory details bit by tantalizing bit, moving at times like a detective thriller, overlapping with a heavily loaded human drama — Shepard’s signature material. While both methods work for about half the movie, it loses momentum during the other half, floating mostly on the ability and chemistry of the cast. Fortunately, Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney and Catherine Keener are the kind of folks that carry it off.

The other big name is Sharon Stone, but with a mere 20-minute appearance, she leaves us with the sad feeling of underdeployment. Certainly the film could have used more scenes of her agonizing in a satin dress, knee-deep in Kentucky grass.

Lyle Carter (Bridges) is a Lexington racing magnate who lives, breathes and sells some of the world’s most valuable horses. During a crucial sales meeting of his favorite stud, Simpatico, Lyle gets a call from childhood friend Vinnie (Nolte), who still lives in their hometown in California. Vinnie says it’s an emergency and needs Lyle over there. Unable to say no (you can tell Lyle has never said no to Vinnie in his life), he flies to the rescue, only to have his wallet and return ticket stolen by Vinnie. Suddenly, the billionaire is left stranded at Vinnie’s place, where the laundry apparently dates from 1985.

Lyle then becomes curiously apathetic. He asks Vinnie’s girlfriend Cecilia (Keener) to go to Kentucky and straighten things out with one Bryan Ames (Finney). Lyle is certain Vinnie is planning to sell “some incriminating documents” to Ames, and he is ready to buy them back at twice the price. Cecilia, who’s only a cashier, is cajoled into it with promises of a club seat at the Kentucky Derby and a dress for the occasion.

After seeing her off, Lyle sinks into lethargy. He trashes his tie and cellphone, then welds himself onto Vinnie’s crummy sofa. In the meantime, Vinnie has been shopping for power suits with Lyle’s money. He is now ready to face Rosie (Stone), his ex-flame of 20 years ago who ditched him to become Lyle’s wife. Vinnie is sure the sale of “the documents” and his spiffy new image will win her back.

While Warchus skillfully plays out the mystery, the story somehow fails to convince us of its tremendous hold over the three key figures. Rosie is a drunken wreck, Vinnie lives in a nightmarish fantasy world, and Lyle is the man who has gained the world and lost his soul. Strangely enough, Ames is the one who bounced back, even though he was the one to take the flak 20 years ago.

Now, he’s recovered his sheen, enough to chug bourbon and woo Cecilia with true Southern male finesse. The way he looks her over (redefining the phrase, “undress with the eyes”) and slowly says: “You. You’re absolutely stunning” is so . . . so . . . pornographic that you expect the vice squad to come bursting in any minute.

Warchus has worked mainly in British theater and opera, and is most noted for the Tony Award-winning “Art.” He trains a cool, English eye on what is distinctly Stars-and-Stripes material, and gets a lot of mileage out of remarks like “all that Americana bores me to death” by Cecilia, who once went to London. She does things like serve tea out of an earthenware pot to the disgusted Lyle (he only drinks coffee), and suggests European herbal remedies for his headaches. Ames dresses himself like an English country gent, and Vinnie’s staunch rejection of the prosperous, American way of life is also telling. Oddly enough, these crosscultural details are probably the best part of the picture.