The Thing Called Love is forever doomed to be a footnote in a rising career. It is a forgettable, misguided feature infamous for what it represents and not for what it actually is. Released in 1993, it was the final film of River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose that same year. Since, he's lived on as the Marlon Brando who wasn’t.
Considering his exceptional work in such modern classics as Stand By Me (1986), Running On Empty (1988), and My Own Private Idaho (1991), we wish that The Thing Called Love, directed by pioneering filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, were a swan song epitomizing his disparate talents. But it’s a relative stinker further brought down by the fact that Phoenix, normally such a clear-eyed, mercurial performer, is sullen and quiet. Part of us wants to tell ourselves that it’s part of his characterization (he’s an enigmatic bad boy of an aspiring country musician), but another is convinced that he’s suffering, hiding behind a character he doesn’t want to play while lost in a sea of his personal demons.
And so The Thing Called Love is an uncomfortable experience. When we aren’t recoiling at the screenplay’s many misfires, or Bogdanovich’s sometimes wince-inducing staging, we’re left downcast in regards to Phoenix. Though I’m sure nothing was evidently wrong with him during production, knowing of his fate leaves us watching for signs of his demise like a hawk, and we see them much more routinely than we’d like. His dialogue is mumbly, his always-there enthusiasm nowhere to be found. It’s distracting, and because the film is only adequate in totality, reveling in The Thing Called Love is insuperable.
Phoenix, however, isn’t its star: that would be Samantha Mathis, who began dating the actor during filming and was with him in The Viper Room at the time of his death (she had no knowledge of his drug use). She plays Miranda Presley, a blond from New York City who dreams of making it big in Nashville as a country star. Arriving in the city on a Greyhound bus like any conventional twenty-something, she heads straight for the renowned Bluebird Café, a hot spot for opportunistic singer-songwriters looking for possible fame.
But in a nice twist (formula can sometimes get tiresome), Miranda is the sort who can play the guitar passably and can carry a tune decently, but is, overall, about as much of a star as your average tween girl posting average covers of average classics on YouTube. The bar’s owner (K.T. Oslin) rejects her initial audition, but sees spunk and ambition in Miranda that leads her to hire her as a waitress, keeping her in Nashville until her potential turns into something substantial.
Her workwoman persistence is matched by Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney), an earnest singing cowboy, Linda Lue Linden (Sandra Bullock), a cutesy ditz of Loretta Lynn wannabe, and James Wright (Phoenix), a rugged guitarist who sings like a bratty Bob Dylan attempting to belt. The group quickly forms a quasi-community — but, of course, complications materialize. Though Linda Lue and Miranda prove to be fast friends, roommates in the blink of eye, the latter becomes intwined in a love triangle with the men she becomes acquainted with. She gravitates toward James, who is self-congratulating and emotionally mysterious, but is also charmed by Kyle, who is sweet to her and more realistic in his career path. A couple of bad decisions later and Miranda runs the risk of becoming disenchanted with Nashville completely. But diligence is something that pays off, and Miranda is not the kind of girl who throws it all away for love.
Fitted with performative chutzpah and a few precocious scenes and you’d think The Thing Called Love would make for a disarming romantic comedy-drama able to cajole in its musicality and its direction. But it only sometimes succeeds, though even saying so is an exaggeration. Its problem is not so much with Bogdanovich or its ensemble and as it with Carol Heikkinen’s screenplay, which concocts your typical show business drama without anything new to say. I’m not against recycling so long as it’s done with wit and sparkle, but The Thing Called Love is neither smart nor affecting enough for us to take it as much more than pure contrivance. We can envision a great movie hidden beneath its flightiness.
It’s dispiriting. I like its cast (Mathis is a bold heroine, and Bullock makes for effective comic relief), and I like its premise. But The Thing Called Love is smothered by frustrating mediocrity — we know it could be much better than it is, and we’re let down that Phoenix’s last complete screen performance is so deterred by his own downfall. If 1993 weren’t his final year, the film would be a debacle of his past, sure to be long forgotten after decades of terrific movies. Instead, it’s an end to a career that should have been more than just promising. C-