The Thing Called Love: Director’s Cut
March 13, 2006
The Thing Called Love (1993) is something of a cinematic oddity. Made towards the end of River Phoenix’s tragically short life and featuring a young Sandra Bullock just before she became a household name with Speed (1994) a year later, it was Peter Bogdanovich’s tale of young, aspiring musicians trying to make it in the country and western music business. It met with mixed reviews at best and commercial indifference but now the veteran filmmaker has revisited this movie with a slightly longer, director’s cut.
Miranda Presley (Mathis) travels from New York City to Nashville with dreams of making it as a country and western songwriter. She’s headed for the Bluebird Café because of its weekly songwriter’s night. She makes a less than auspicious first impression, arriving late for the audition. Miranda also crosses paths with a fellow struggling songwriter, James Wright (Phoenix) who also arrives late and tries to use her as his excuse.
Miranda makes the next audition and meets two others who will figure prominently in her life: Linda Lue (Bullock), who becomes her roommate and Kyle Davidson (Mulroney) who develops a crush on her. It is James who sets his sights on Miranda. He alternates between piercing, slow burn looks in her direction and hard-to-get indifference. Soon, a love triangle forms between Miranda, James and nice guy Kyle. It becomes pretty obvious what James wants from her – he’s an emotional vampire – while Kyle has only the noblest of intentions.
They all bond and try to look out for one another, except for James who has that killer instinct and the talent to back it up. He remains slightly aloof from the others because he feels that as a musician and a songwriter, he’s above them – and arguably he is, coming across as a natural performer who is comfortable on stage in front of an audience.
The first on-screen meeting between River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis demonstrates how incredibly natural an actor he was. While she comes across as stiff, awkwardly delivering her admittedly clunky dialogue, he says his lines with an unusual cadence and with mannerisms of bemusement as he regards her character. Phoenix is able to surpass his dialogue while she is unable to do so. He alternates between grimacing and a mischievous smirk that suggests a whole inner life. He’s not afraid to play a crass, unlikable character.
Samantha Mathis is the star of the film but she isn’t up to the task with her mannered performance. She was so good in Pump Up the Volume (1990) but feels miscast in this one. In Sandra Bullock’s bubbly, optimistic performance one starts to see the ingredients for her breakout role in Speed.
Bogdanovich portrays Nashville as the country and western equivalent of Los Angeles – everyone is an aspiring songwriter, from the cab driver who picks Miranda up at the bus station to the police officer who arrests her and Kyle for breaking into Trisha Yearwood’s car. The Thing Called Love wants to do for country and western music what Punchline (1988) did for stand-up comedy but Bogdanovich’s film lacks the insider insight to show what it’s really like, warts and all. Only Phoenix’s character hints at this but the rest of the movie comes off as much lighter fare.
There is an audio commentary by director Peter Bogdanovich. He had approached Samantha Mathis who was doing an off-Broadway play at the time and was hesitant to do the film because the screenplay was still in a rough form. River Phoenix had actually approached the veteran director because he was a fan of The Last Picture Show (1971) and wanted to sing in a movie. Bogdanovich points out the four minutes that have been added back into the movie and the reasons why. He also spends a lot of time pointing out what was filmed on location and what was shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles. This is an okay track that could have been livened up with another participant along for the ride.
“The Thing Called Love – A Look Back” is nice, retrospective look back at this movie. Bogdanovich recalls being given the script with the idea of making a country and western variation on The Last Picture Show. He thought that Phoenix wouldn’t be interested because it was an ensemble film and he was a big star at the time but the actor wanted to work with Bogdanovich. The director, Mathis, Anthony Clark and Dermot Mulroney all contribute brand new interviews for this DVD and they are mixed in with archival interview bits with Phoenix and Sandra Bullock done at the time of filming.
“The Look of the Film” explores the use of location shooting and costumes to achieve an authenticity of being in Nashville. They shot in the city for four weeks and then recreated the interior of the famous Bluebird Café exactly on a soundstage in L.A. The costumes were specifically suited for each individual character in such a way to give little visual clues into who they were.
“Our Friend River” is an affectionate tribute to the late-great actor. Bogdanovich points out that Phoenix would never play the same scene twice, always trying something new. Mathis found his fearlessness in acting to be very inspiring. Everyone recounts memorable stories about working with him.
Finally, there is the original theatrical trailer.