Co-written and directed by Matthew Warchus

Feb 23, 2000 at 4:00 am

Sharon Stone doesn't appear onscreen until halfway through this tale of three lives unraveling, but when she does, she makes quite an impression as Rosie, the third player in a horse-racing scam. Adapted from a play by Sam Shepard, Simpatico jumps back and forth in time between the present day and the 1970s, when three reckless California friends switched two horses at the track, blackmailed a racing commissioner into keeping quiet and walked off with thousands of dollars in winnings. Today, Carter (Jeff Bridges) is a wealthy horse trainer and breeder, married to Rosie and living the good life on a beautiful estate in Kentucky. Vinnie (Nick Nolte) remained in California, where, consumed with guilt over ruining the life of the innocent Commissioner Simms (Albert Finney), he now leads a life of drunkenness and destitution, refusing to spend the money he won at the racetrack that day.

The film takes its title from the name of a prize Thoroughbred owned by Carter, the Triple Crown winner Simpatico, which, as the story opens, Carter is negotiating to sell. When Vinnie phones from California to say he is in trouble with the law and needs Carter's help, it is implicit that he is threatening to divulge their past indiscretions. Carter flies to Los Angeles, and Vinnie begs him to jointly confess their crime and reimburse Simms, who is now living in Kentucky. When Carter refuses, convinced it will destroy his career, Vinnie steals his car and identification and flies to Kentucky to locate Simms himself.

A fast-paced drama that veers off in unexpected directions, Simpatico is a fairly sophisticated tale about the wages of sin, but it proves only intermittently engaging as its twisted plot loses energy and becomes confusing in the latter half. Bridges, Stone, Nolte and Finney all excel in meaty roles. Nolte reveals a man whose long-standing guilt and regret have broken him completely, turning him into a bum on the edge of sanity. Bridges brings a nervous energy to the smiling, gladhanding Carter, whose torment over his past is less obvious but equally destructive. And Stone brings unexpected sympathy to her character, a boozy, blowzy but still beautiful woman who is filled with grief and shame and anger. She infuses Rosie with a fierceness as well as a vulnerability; it is one of her best performances. Catherine Keener is good as an acquaintance of Vinnie's, a guileless innocent whom Carter enlists to try bribing Simms into keeping quiet.

Structurally the film works well, with the characters' youthful escapades revealed both in old home movies and flashbacks. Shawn Hatosy (Providence) stars as the young Vinnie, newcomer Liam Waite plays the young Carter and Kimberly Williams (Father of the Bride) is the young Rosie. The fact that neither of the younger men resembles his supposedly older self proves jarring, but the inclusion of those scenes lends an important tension -- moral and otherwise -- to the film. The audience watches the threesome's callow, callous actions knowing -- in ways the kids can't even imagine -- the outcome of their actions.

Joining a growing list of theatrical directors making the transition to film is British-born Matthew Warchus, who also co-wrote the screenplay. The picture's theatrical roots show a bit in the rhythmic dialogue and in an emotional and physical metamorphosis that figures prominently in the drama. Surprisingly, this actually adds a certain poetic sensibility to what could have been a typical thriller-drama. In the end, however, the film never really earns the audience's sympathies. The viewer remains constantly outside the action, looking in.

Opens Feb. 25.