Sam Shepard on Screen: Confusing but Simpatico

Matthew Warchus’ Simpatico , from the screenplay by Mr. Warchus and David Nicholls, based on Sam Shepard’s play Simpatico , demonstrates how the avant-garde theater of 30 years ago can be reduced to the rear-guard cinema of today. From the moment we first see hobo-like Nick Nolte’s Vinnie hunched inside an outdoor telephone booth, his unkempt hair crawling all over his face like linguine, we who waited patiently for Godot a long time ago know intuitively that we must wait once more to get an idea of why Vinnie is behaving with such grotesque furtiveness. At the moment, he is calling his onetime buddy Carter (Jeff Bridges), who is now running a racing empire in Kentucky.

Vinnie wants Carter to drop everything and come West to rescue Vinnie from a false charge of harassment filed by a woman named Cecilia (Catherine Keener), who turns out to be a sweet checkout girl at a supermarket counter. Vinnie doesn’t actually ask Carter to come, he orders him to come, in a distinctly menacing tone familiar to us from the oddly ominous plays of Harold Pinter. It seems that Vinnie is in possession of a shoebox jammed with pornographic pictures, with which he threatens to blackmail Carter, Carter’s wife, Rosie (Sharon Stone), and anyone else who might have been involved in a racing scam many years ago when Vinnie, Carter and Rosie were hanging out together on the fringes of Churchill Downs.

I must confess at this point that I am making Simpatico seem much more linear than it plays, with two separate casts for Vinnie, Carter and Rosie then, and Vinnie, Carter and Rosie now. There is not really that much resemblance between Mr. Nolte, Mr. Bridges and Ms. Stone in the present, and Shawn Hatosy, Liam Waite and Kimberly Williams in the past. By going back and forth in time with dizzying confusion, the makers of Simpatico can invoke the ancient alibi of the avant-garde, simply that the chaos of art expresses the chaos of life, and you wouldn’t complain if you weren’t hooked on all those silly “commercial” entertainments.

On the plus side, Simpatico is graced with an unusually strong cast for such a marginal offshore project, one in which the individual scenes count for more than the film as a whole. I never saw the play on the stage, but I can recognize in the tortured relationship between Vinnie and Carter a typical male-sibling-or-pseudo-sibling confrontation in which the true worth of human beings is weighed on Mr. Shepard’s histrionic scales. It follows that Vinnie begins looking like a derelict, and ends up in a suit and tie, whereas Carter reverses the process by shedding his identity as a C.E.O. with a cell phone to become Vinnie’s slovenly mirror image.

Meanwhile, Mr. Shepard’s windy rhetoric of guilt and corruption completely engulfs the puny plot that is supposed to drive the characters. It seems that Vinnie and Carter once blackmailed a racing official named Simms (Albert Finney) with pictures of his fornication with Rosie so that he would look the other way when they perpetrated a racetrack betting swindle that became the seed money for Carter’s subsequent fortune. An embittered Rosie then blew the whistle on Simms, compounding his disgrace and avenging herself of her own voluntary self-mortification.

When Vinnie tries to get Simms to expose Carter, Simms refuses with a weary shrug of philosophical resignation about the past. He is more interested in the virginal purity of the present represented by the unsullied Cecilia, who wants nothing more than a box at the Kentucky Derby as payment for her Platonic services for Vinnie, Carter and Simms. Mr. Shepard has never lacked a flair for the kind of dialectical theatricality that seduces actors with its aura of cutting-edge absurdism about something being rotten in the state of existence. Movies, however, are too intransigently illusionist to do anything but stare blankly at Mr. Shepard’s larger-than-life theatrical conceits. Movies don’t really need a dose of stage magic to supplement their own primal capacity to create a second universe out of the first.

Mr. Warchus and his collaborators have tried to transcend their intermedia problem through endless acrobatics with magic-marker montage. “Look,” the filmmakers seem to be saying, “this is not just another movie but, rather, a special event for all you smart people out there who have outgrown Hollywood.” Past keeps colliding with present to fashion an uncertain future. Curiously, for all its misguided zeal and half-baked ambitions, Simpatico strikes me as an encouraging sign of a trend against all the prevailing wisdom that movies have become more cynically bottom-line and derivative than ever before. Certainly, the turf is covered too much in that fashion journalistically by people who know the grosses of everything and the value of nothing. At the very least, Simpatico is not quite like anything else, and many films around right now can claim the same distinction, for better or worse.

A Very Obscure Map Of the World

Scott Elliott’s A Map of the World , from a screenplay by Peter Hedges and Polly Platt, based on the novel by Jane Hamilton, piles more mystifying misfortunes on Alice Goodwin (Sigourney Weaver) than most movie protagonists are in the habit of having to endure. But nothing seems to pierce her mood of surly detachment and disenchantment. From the outset, she seems unable to communicate with her two small children and her farmer-husband Howard (David Strathairn). She does seem to bond with Theresa Collins (Julianne Moore), her next-door neighbor with whom she exchanges baby-sitting duties with the four small children they have between them. Alice’s first catastrophe occurs when one of Theresa’s children dies in a pond while Alice is upstairs looking at a map of the world she once made for her mother. Theresa says she doesn’t blame Alice, but the two families are temporarily estranged.

Hard upon the heels of this disaster, Alice, a school nurse, is accused by an unpleasant young waitress named Carole Mackessey (Chloë Sevigny) of sexually molesting her bratty son, and is immediately clamped in the local hoosegow. The local people immediately believe the worst, paint obscene graffiti on the Goodwin house, and even spit on the husband in public. Unable to raise bail, Alice languishes in jail with an assortment of other females, most or them black, most accused of capital crimes. Alice sets herself apart from her cellmates by reading Dostoyevsky in her spare time, and being as sassy and superior with them as she has been with almost everyone else in her life.

Ms. Weaver has been iconically one of our most likable actresses, and we desperately want to know what is really eating her Alice. But she never deigns to tell us. If Simpatico is overwritten for the screen, A Map of the World is woefully underwritten. Alice and Howard never have an honest-to-goodness heart-to-heart conversation even under extreme duress. Does she resent farm life with a husband who has only recently left the city to take up this activity? Does she resent Howard’s rich and intrusive Mother, Nellie, especially as played by Louise Fletcher, who is in fine One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest form as the most infuriatingly reasonable person on the planet? Alice is mostly mum on these and all other subjects.

Yet, things get curiouser and curiouser when the trial finally begins, and Alice’s tough defense lawyer, Paul Reverdy (Arliss Howard), begins destroying the reputation of Alice’s apparently sluttish accuser. Instead of being grateful for the helpful ferocity of the beleaguered Alice’s lawyer, Alice’s husband expresses disgust with the lawyer’s tactics as if his wife’s freedom is of secondary importance. This I don’t get. Normally, I would consider it grounds for divorce. But there is nothing normal about the behavior of the characters in A Map of the World . Of course, Alice is acquitted, though we never actually see the jury delivering its verdict or, for that matter, all that much of the trial. We do see some graphically topless marital love scenes, but only as a means of building to a cooling of desire in the marriage as still another cross Alice must bear on her way to an ending that is less happy than vague and haphazard. Still, Ms. Weaver, Ms. Moore, Mr. Strathairn, Ms. Fletcher, Mr. Howard and Ms. Sevigny are hardly chopped liver as an acting ensemble.

Bhutanese World Premiere

Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup is reportedly the first feature film from Bhutan, and you may well ask, so what and where is Bhutan, anyway? According to my copious program notes, Bhutan is located somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, and borders Tibet and India. The director is described as “one of the most important lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, who at age 7 was recognized as the incarnation of the great religious reformer and saint Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.”

Although Mr. Norbu counts among his mentors the 14th Dalai Lama, his film mentor is Bernardo Bertolucci, for whom he served as a consultant on Mr. Bertolucci’s 1993 epic film, Little Buddha . What is most interesting about The Cup is its good-natured demystification of the unalloyed spirituality attributed to the Tibetan refugee monks in India and elsewhere by such Western celebrity admirers as Martin Scorsese, Brad Pitt and Richard Gere, along with the aforementioned Mr. Bertolucci. With a cast drawn mainly from members of the Chokling Monastery, Mr. Norbu tells a simple but affecting story of a group of soccer enthusiasts trying to raise enough money to rent a television set and satellite dish during the summer of 1998 championship match. Mr. Norbu has summed up the real-life monkish mania for soccer with the following aphorism: “You might say football is their religion and Buddhism is their philosophy.” The biggest game of all in The Cup is a cosmic humanism expressed with kindness and humility.