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The Thing Called Love Review

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Miranda moves to Nashville to pursue a dream of being a country singer. There she meets, Kyle, Linda (who she moves in with), and James. James is the most interesting of the bunch and the two get married after only a few days together, but soon she starts to question her life there.

★★★★★

Unless the now-shelved thriller Dark Blood ever escapes celluloid purgatory, this will forever be remembered as "River Phoenix's last leading role". Morbid viewers, spurred on by tabloid tales about Phoenix's post-Private Idaho descent into substance abuse hell and reports that the actor was apparently falling down drunk on the set of The Thing Called Love, will no doubt whisk this home to see if they can spot signs of a man clearly operating from the Twilight Zone. Sad to report, they won't have to look very hard.

With the benefit of hindsight, Phoenix's performance is perceivably off-kilter — at best strange in a Methody mumbo-jumbo kind of way, at worst downright creepy. Camouflaged as a greasy-haired wreck with a cobra-lidded gaze, he lurches from lucidity to functionally impaired, mumbling throughout. All of this, however, is unfair baggage with which to saddle Bogdanovich's formulaic musical drama, a film which otherwise registers as a wispy but mostly enjoyable romantic fable centring on four twentysomethings trying to break into the Country & Western music scene in Nashville.

Fresh from the Big Apple, aspiring singer-songwriter Miranda Presley (Mathis) heads straight for Nashville's Bluebird Cafe, where "open mike" night attracts hundreds of ten-gallon hatted hopefuls, including "mystical guy" James Wright (Phoenix), East Coast cowguy Kyle Davidson (Mulroney) and bubbly but hopelessly untalented country gal Linda Lue Linden (Bullock). Cute insomniac Miranda moves in with Linda Lue, gets a job waitressing at the Bluebird, suffers for her art, and yo-yos between sensitive songwriter Kyle and broody-but-gifted James.

Peppered with occasionally insipid dialogue — "You're an owl goddess," Phoenix tells a baffled Mathis — this runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way in after Phoenix and Mathis' shotgun wedding in a 24-hour convenience store. Nonetheless, a string of toe-tapping tunes are pleasingly interspersed throughout, gamely sung with amazing proficiency by the cast, and despite being saddled with an unsympathetically drawn character, Mathis is a sparky presence, while Mulroney stands out as the soulful jiltee.

Thin and predictable, and a flop of awesome proportions in the US, this has occasional bursts of freshness, but mostly leaves you with the nagging impression that Mathis ended up with the wrong guy.

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