The Thing Called Love
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Starring River Phoenix, Samantha Mathis, Dermot Mulroney, Sandra Bullock, K.T. Oslin, Webb Wilder, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. (1993, PG-13, 116 min.)
REVIEWED By Louis Black, Fri., Sept. 3, 1993
Miranda Presley (Mathis) takes the bus from New York to Nashville to make it as a singing/songwriting star. Trying out and then waitressing at the Bluebird Cafe, she meets rebellious James Wright (Phoenix) and romantic Kyle Davidson (Mulroney). She falls for the wild man while the sensitive one pines for her as they all try to make it as country stars. There's brilliant film material in country music; witness Payday or Songwriter or even Nashville (which actually has more to do with L.A.'s perception of Nashville than the city itself), but Bogdanovich has turned out a snoozer. It isn't just that we know everything that is going to happen, it's that we don't care. My companion went to Bookstop and I longed to join her. Bless Ed Lowry but Bogdanovich's movies have always been more about artifice and cinematic reality than they have been anything else. His best movies are all about movies as versions of other movies – What's Up Doc?, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon and Saint Jack. The Last Picture Show is a Fifties Western, all empty streets and tired people, instead of violence, there's sex; Paper Moon is the ideal screwball. In The Thing Called Love, he tells a very Warner Bros. Thirties musical story about a girl and a boy and a boy. They come to the big city to make it as stars, only instead of New York and Broadway musicals, it's Nashville and country music. But there is no sense that Bogdanovich has thought about the realities of Nashville or about romance beyond the Thirties. This is stilted stuff. The acting is disjointed, the movie should be subtitled Three Actors in Search of Their Characters. River Phoenix gives a somnambulant impersonation of Christian Slater impersonating Jack Nicholson, and Samantha Mathis spends much of the movie trying to figure out exactly who her character is. The plot, the interactions, the characters all add up to nothing. Bogdanovich doesn't get it – that those movies he paid homage to weren't about still earlier movies, but were about the life and style of their time. The Thing Called Love isn't really about Nashville and it's not really about love and, even though it has some great songs and an appearance by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, it's certainly not about country music – which Bogdanovich seems not to understand at all. Unfortunately and unwisely, Bogdanovich cast country singer K.T. Oslin as the bar manager, she's so country and so good in her role, she reveals the rest of the movie to be as artificial as it is. Rent Payday, rent Songwriter.