The Thing Called Love

(Peter Bogdanovich, USA, 1993)


Peter Bogdanovich's The Thing Called Love covers similar interpersonal terrain to that of Gillian Armstrong's The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). But it is clearly a project torn between adherence to a safe formula and a fitful attempt to convey something gentle and ephemeral about matters of the heart.

The film qualifies as an instant cult item: not only does it contain one of the last performances of River Phoenix, but it is also one of the few mainstream movies to deal with contemporary country'n'western music in a semi-realistic fashion. (Allan Moyle, director of Pump Up the Volume [1990], revealed during at an Australian conference for screenwriters that he came on during shooting as Script Doctor.)

As a low-key comedy-drama about music making in the slow lane it mixes elements from two better films, Paul Schrader's Light of Day (1987) and Martin Scorsese's New York, New York (1977). Like the former, it eschews Hollywood illusion and presents actors (including the soulful Dermot Mulroney from Bright Angel [1991]) falteringly performing their own songs in a live context. Like the latter, it explores the first, fraught months of an impulsive, explosive marriage between Phoenix and Samantha Mathis.

Bogdanovich is an intriguing figure whose clinical, movie-mad approach to directing often betrays a fatal lack of human insight. It is only when he is able to step beyond easy romantic clichés and provide an indirect, ironic commentary on the story that, paradoxically, The Thing Called Love becomes at moments a wise, touching film about the dreams of ordinary people.

MORE Bogdanovich: The Cat's Meow

MORE music films: What's Love Got to Do with It?, Ray, Pure Country

© Adrian Martin February 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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