An ambitious twentysomething Miranda Presley (Samantha Mathis) takes the greyhound bus from New York to Nashville, Tennessee harbouring dreams of becoming a successful songwriter. After arriving she befriends three other hopefuls, the ditzy Linda Lue Linden (Sandra Bullock), the thoughtful Kyle Davison (Dermot Mulroney), and the wild man of country James Wright (River Phoenix). Despite her better intentions, Presley finds herself taken in by the mesmerising qualities of Wright and the pair marry, much to the despair of her secret admirer Davison. The bonds of friendship that hold the four together find themselves stretched as the friends and lovers attempt to balance their interlinked personal lives with the musical careers that all hold so close to their hearts. It's been a long time for The Thing Called Love's cult devotees awaiting a DVD release of this somewhat forgotten early nineties offering from Peter Bogdanovich, and it finally arrives on the shelves in an altogether more hospitable time and place, where Walk the Line has brought the Nashville scene to the cinematic masses and Brokeback Mountain has ensured Cowboy-style is back in vogue. Centring itself on the dramatic trials and tribulations of a close knit group of young people trying to break out into the world, the films intentions immediately recall Bogdanovich's crowning glory, the masterful Last Picture Show. The fact that the Thing Called Love falls considerably short of its predecessor is more due to the lofty heights set by Bogdanovich's earlier work than any fatal flaws present here. In truth this is arguably about as fine a film as Bogdanovich has managed in the last twenty years or so, although anyone familiar with the output of the director's career over that space of time will know that this is not necessarily a glowing recommendation. Formerly a film critic and theorist, the newly turned director enjoyed a scintillating start in Hollywood's postclassical era where his first four movies were all stonewall classics (including Targets, one of the finest B-Movies ever committed to celluloid). Bogdanovich used the second half of the seventies to utilise his critical and box-office kudos as leverage to explore his own personal interests in cinematic history with a series of stabs at the stylistic exploits of times gone by. The resulting films were uneven and misguided certainly, but nevertheless equal parts curiously watchable, bravely if erroneously realised, and lovingly constructed by the ultimate cinephile. After the critical and commercial mauling of his late seventies work, things have continued a decided downturn for Bogdanovich. Perhaps he'd said all he had to say, paid homage to all he'd admired in the past, or just burnt out through professional and personal pressure. Whatever the reasoning, Bogdanovich's output since the turn of the eighties has been resolutely unspectacular, lacking the verve and bravado of his earlier films, with even the modestly successful Mask (although a solid effort in it's own right) lacking the spirit and individualism of his early catalogue. In many respects The Thing Called Love is perfectly symptomatic of what Bogdanovich became as a director after his spark and vigour left him. It's a decent enough film, by no means great but certainly not the worst you'll see. There are parts that are almost brilliance and recall some of the director's vintage work. Unfortunately it also bears all the hallmarks of his later day vices, being as it is somewhat of an unfocused, undercooked and overly portentous beast. As a well-worn student of film, Bogdanovich has always been a director obsessed with the fine details, the simple yet essential mechanics of what makes a movie tick. Here this is both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness. By far the most successful feature of the film is the quiet minutes of interplay between two or three characters, where protagonists can breathe and interact together. The director shows an admiral deftness of touch in these scenes and shows he's lost none of his ability to command attention when working on an intimate scale with the leading figures. Unfortunately this focus of the miniature ultimately results in the sacrificing of the big picture. Whilst each character and situation comes alive in isolated scenes, the movie as a whole just doesn't hang together. Even in this re-edited director's cut (which in truth adds less than five minutes of exorcised material), plot lines remain underdeveloped, characters motivations are somewhat unclear, and the whole tale is less a focused stride towards a denouement than a confused and disorientated shuffle towards closure. It's a shame really because some of the situations are very good indeed. It's just as viewers, we aren't really sure how or why things arrive when they do. Integral points are thrust upon the storyline without any real development, and if you want to follow the ride you need to suspend disbelief and just accept the outcome, even if it's shot out of left field. Unfortunately the film does seem at times like it's been plotted as it went along, which is a real shame because it's teasingly easy to imagine how some great scenes could have transcended to wonderful ones had we had some sort of recognisable structure and progress to hang our emotions on. Acting wise, all involved are solid and effective if hardly inspirational. Of the four leading figures, Mulrony stands out as the finest performer, creating the films most empathetic character from an underwritten source. Equal parts amusing and heartfelt, his tender portrayal of the introverted cowboy dreamer Kyle Davison is the most traditionally interesting here, and it's a shame he finds his screen time limited. Sandra Bullock fits nicely into her irritating ditzy Southern Belle role which is little more than a two-dimensional caricature, where she hits the character right on the head by providing a somewhat irritating and ditzy performance. Samantha Mathis is perfectly acceptable as the leading lady, providing a solid if unspectacular turn and making a fine job of grounding the story and holding the disparate strands together. Of course the main focus here must go to River Phoenix whose performance will always be tinged with the subsequent knowledge of his untimely death outside Johnny Depp's Viper Club a mere three months after this film's theatrical release. It's very difficult to place Phoenix's performance here, as it's pitched somewhere between brilliance and ineptitude. His sheer magnetism ensures that he commands the screen for every second he's on it, and his portrayal of essentially a stock character, the troubled artist, is never less than mesmerising. It's difficult to ascertain whether this is a feat of brooding menace and confusion, or the barely concealed troubles of a tragic figure on an irreparable downward spiral. What we get is a gripping display of alienated bewilderment, but little of the charismatic charm and enthusiasm that characterised his best work. There is little in Phoenix's portrayal of James Wright to encourage sympathy or connection aside from the scorching musical cuts, and for that alone the performance is strangely disconnected. Consequent historical tragedy perhaps has led us to see here up on film a man staring into the precipice, and for that reason alone it's a morbidly fascinating and intense portrayal, if not a wholly successful one. Now of course this is a story of discovery set in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee with its roots firmly set in country music. Now if you're like myself and the words country music bring with them narrow-minded connotations of slack-jawed, mullet-sporting yokels grabbin' their partner and havin' themselves a hoedown in a big 'ol barnyard, then y'all be warned that there is a great deal of country blasted out of them dang 'ol speakers. Fortunately for those of us with a semblance of musical taste, not all of it is of the Garth Brooks/Billy Ray Cyrus variety. River Phoenix especially does a sterling job of banging out his tracks, about the only thing he can manage some true gusto with. If anything the tracks here have a more alt. country swing to them than good old barndance and that can only be a good thing. So what we have here is a flawed little curiosity of a film. Despite his obvious downfall, Bogdanovich still maintains enough smarts about him to ensure that he very rarely makes a bad movie, and The Thing Called Love is professional enough to just about carry through as a feasible if modest snapshot of the tribulations of youth in the Music City. This often wonderfully tender movie is seriously compromised by some lacklustre plotting and character development, although the acting is uniformly solid and the musical scenes pack a satisfying punch. Fans of country will no doubt find plenty to yee-haw about, and followers of Phoenix will find his troubled performance mesmerising. If you don't fall into either of these camps then unfortunately The Thing Called Love may just be a little bit lacklustre and a touch underdeveloped to float your boat.
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