Film review: Thing Called Love, The

Published: Monday, Aug. 30 1993 12:00 a.m. MDT

An ensemble romantic comedy on the order of dozens of other If-I-can-make-it-here-I-can-make-it-anywhere! pictures about young people trying to break into show business, "The Thing Called Love" employs the perfect commercial twist — country-western music.

Yes, instead of New York or Hollywood, this one is set in Nashville. And the aspiring talent here hope to become singer-songwriters instead of actors or dancers. There's even a scene with line dancing, for heaven's sake!

Aside from its blatantly commercial aspirations and predictable storyline, there is an appealing cast, enjoyable songs and some funny bits of business.

The central foursome consists of Samantha Mathis, River Phoenix, Dermot Mulroney and Sandra Bullock, with Mathis as the nominal lead. The film begins with her traveling from New York to Nashville by bus and heading straight for the famed Bluebird Cafe, where she hopes to audition.

There, Mathis meets the other three and their lives become entangled in cliche fashion. Phoenix is the talented singer-songwriter who is hot-headed and unreliable, Mulroney's songs are better than his voice and delicate, insecure Bullock will ultimately realize this life isn't for her. Mathis, meanwhile, must get some life experience before her songs will become personal enough to touch others.

That may also apply to first-time screenwriter Carol Heikkinen, who is more inventive with sideline events than the main story. An especially amusing contrivance is the motel where Mathis and Bullock are staying, garish rooms and a marquee that changes according to whatever goofy country lyric strikes the owner.

Director Peter Bogdanovich, whose checkered career has included such diverse successes as "The Last Picture Show," "What's Up, Doc?" "Paper Moon" and "Mask" in between bombs, affects a low-key, meandering style that seems to suit the material. In fact, the first half of the film is so good that it is disappointing to watch it gradually run out of steam.

Mathis gets top acting honors; she is extremely likable in the lead. Mulroney and Bullock are also good, as is Phoenix, though his style is so laid-back he seems close to losing consciousness at times. Singer K.T. Oslin, in her acting debut, is surprisingly natural and wry as the singers' mentor. And though she is billed as a cast member, Trisha Yearwood actually just has a cameo as herself in a funny, if perhaps ill-advised scene (which could prompt a rash of car break-ins by aspiring songwriters who see this picture).

"The Thing Called Love" is enjoyable show-biz fluff, rated PG-13 for a few profanities, some violence, a couple of vulgar remarks, brief sex and partial nudity.

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