The elephant in the room of The Thing Called Love is a desiccated River Phoenix, visibly on his way to his tragic rendezvous with fate outside the Viper Room three months after the film’s release. Indeed, the Gen-X thespian’s role, his last, has lent the picture a grim footnote status that obscures the lighter, funnier aspects of Peter Bogdanovich’s portrait of young hopefuls finding themselves while trying to break into the country music industry. Though Phoenix’s presence as James Wright, a guitar-strumming Nashville brooder, inevitably looms over and imbalances the story, the relaxed narrative makes sure that each side of the ensemble quartet receives the camera’s attention—also arriving to town to try out their songwriting talents are New York City insomniac Miranda Presley (Samantha Mathis), wannabe-cowboy Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney), and Southern ditz Linda Lue Linden (Sandra Bullock).
Fresh off the bus, Miranda bumps into James on her way to a tryout at a local bar, and, when she tells him off for using her as an excuse for arriving late at an audition, he coolly replies, “There might be a song in there.” Bogdanovich’s Nashville canvas is far more modest than Altman’s, yet both directors understand and appreciate the way music can reflect lived life and personal expression. A lot of the film just doesn’t work—the idea of country song lyrics on a motel’s panel working as running Greek chorus falls flat, and when Linda Lue tells Miranda that “the road to love is just a one-way street, and sex ain’t nothing but a road block,” a line meant to show how performers can incorporate potential homilies into their own speech comes off like facile cuteness.
Such strained touches notwithstanding, The Thing Called Love charms and touches, not the least for revealing Bogdanovich as a rare filmmaker still interested in human behavior, keeping the action mostly in medium shots and extended takes to better catch the emotional nuances from character to character. Songs succeed and fail, people fall in love and break up, yet the film builds an insightful sense of emotional community throughout, marvelously expressed in the lovely gag where Mulroney, starstruck that Trisha Yearwood is singing his song on the car’s radio, accidentally rams into the vehicle in front of him, and the irate driver, probably a fellow dreamer, congratulates him upon hearing the news.