At this late date, Sam Shepard’s brand of symbol-strewn American Dreamism seems to require a little electroshock, and that could be said twice over for the narrative pulsation of plays-on-film. Matthew Warchus’s Simpatico suffers obliviously beneath both burdens. A decked-out mediocrity with a high-octane cast and enough respect for Shepard’s lightly stylized dialogue to treat it realistically, Warchus’s movie cannot quite overcome its theatrical sclerosis. We have two old friends, Vinnie the textbook whiskey-guzzling, unwashed waste case (Nick Nolte) and Carter the uptight billionaire entrepreneur (Jeff Bridges), both of whom we immediately learn have a common closet skeleton that Carter, with so much more to lose, is in constant dread of Vinnie revealing. Nervously summoned to California from his Kentucky estate by a lying Vinnie, Carter is soon left holding little more than his sports jacket as a semideranged Vinnie steals his rental car and flies back to Kentucky with a proverbial black (shoe) box of dark secrets. Enter both Cecilia (Catherine Keener), a sweetly naive supermarket clerk who serves as a go-to girl, and Simms (Albert Finney), a crotchety old bloodstock agent (the macguffin is horse racing, and a particular horse-racing scam). Of course, somewhere amid this country-mouse/city-mouse routine, the protagonists begin to switch identities, and Carter begins to swill whiskey and sleep on Vinnie’s loamy sofa.
It’s a shame Nolte and Bridges weren’t cast as brothers, because the two have similar rumpled-suede faces and irritated-bark delivery. They’re dynamite together, but too much time is spent on their separate trajectories into symbolhood. Sharon Stone, as the requisite rich Southern souse-wife, doesn’t show up until more than an hour in, and then chews her lines like they were martini olives. Predictably, she gets to deliver the play’s Big Secret, but in a moment of horrifying melodramatic slo-mo. (Warchus can rarely resist a moment of hysteria, or a chance to cut to a rosy-cheeked flashback of the characters as young buckaroos.) Simpatico takes on the free-floating guilt of the American enterprise, but the movie’s squinting cynicism is facile. In fact, it’s preachy as hell; only Keener’s bubblehead is untortured by shame. In a climactic howler, maddened couch potato Bridges pitches his nagging cell phone into the void, not because it doesn’t work but because it works all too well. Apparently it would’ve said less about Our Soullessness if he’d just turned the thing off.