"The Thing Called Love" is a generic title for a fairly generic movie. It's good enough to watch, but not good enough to re-watch. Its story is predictable at nearly every turn, but its performances are likable and charismatic. You can see why it was released in a handful of cities in 1993 and then quickly forgotten. The people who saw it probably liked it, but not well enough to recommend it to anyone.
Our heroine is Miranda Presley (Samantha Mathis), a New York City girl just arrived in Nashville, where she feels the need to point out she's "no relation" to Elvis. Like thousands of other young people, she has dreams of being a singer-songwriter in Music City, U.S.A., and she auditions for one of the Blue Bird Cafe's coveted Saturday night amateur spots as soon as she arrives. Lucy (K.T. Oslin), the owner, says Miranda's song is a novelty number and urges her to write something more personal and insightful.
Miranda meets three people right away, all fellow wannabes. One is James Wright (River Phoenix), an enigmatic and cocksure guy from Texas. One is Kyle (Dermot Mulroney), a more down-to-earth, less smooth but much sweeter Connecticut transplant. (Are there really so many Yankees trying to "make it" in Nashville?) The third is Linda Lue Linden (Sandra Bullock), who is from Alabama, obviously, and who's a little ditzy and a little naive and a lot like all of Sandra Bullock's roles in the '90s.
Now, Linda Lue already has a boyfriend, thus taking her out of the plot, romance-wise. (She's there for a little comic relief, and to suddenly become wise and insightful in telling Miranda what to do.) For Miranda, James and Kyle instantly form a triangle, with Kyle crushing hard on Miranda while Miranda has a thing for James, who treats her with cavalier I-could-have-you-if-I-want-you indifference. Kyle is clearly the better choice for her, and certainly no booby prize, but if there's one thing a gal wants, it's a guy who doesn't seem to care about her.
So with the songwriting forming the background, "The Thing Called Love" puts Miranda and James' tumultuous relationship at the forefront, while Kyle lurks like a wounded puppy off to one side. River Phoenix had a bit of the young Marlon Brando thing going, no question, and you can see why a woman would be drawn to him. But watching the film, I never really bought that she would KEEP coming back to him, no matter how carelessly he treated her -- especially when she had a perfectly good backup guy waiting for her. But then, I'm not a woman, and the screenwriter, Carol Heikkinen, is.
There is a good deal of music incorporated into the film, as you might expect, and it's decent stuff for the genre. Director Peter Bogdanovich demonstrates a mastery of the art of using music to enhance your movie. His style of long takes and innocuous camera movement recalls his string of excellent films from the 1970s ("The Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon," etc.), though it does nothing to enliven "The Thing Called Love," which could occasionally use a little pep.
Overall, there's nothing seriously wrong with the film. Mathis, Mulroney, Phoenix and Bullock all perform ably (though Mathis' New York accent comes and goes), and they do their own singing, too, which is nice. The simple storyline has an old-fashioned feel to it, and it's certainly worth spending a couple hours with, even if you never give it another thought when it's over.
Note: This is labeled a "Director's Cut." Bogdanovich says in the commentary that four minutes were added, but the running time is only two minutes longer than the theatrical version. So if he really did add four minutes, he must have cut out two minutes, too, and he doesn't mention that in his commentary. I was unable to compare this version to the original version; however, Bogdanovich is conscientious about noting in the commentary which scenes are new.
There are no alternate language tracks. There are optional English subtitles, including on the special features.
VIDEO: The film's original anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) format has been preserved, but the digital transfer is sub-par. There's a grainy look to the entire film, and the picture appears dull instead of vibrant.
AUDIO: Two options: Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1. Both are excellent, well-balanced and vivid -- good thing, considering how much music the film uses.
EXTRAS: Director Peter Bogdanovich gives a commentary in which he helpful points out which scenes have been added for this "Director's Cut." (None of them are earth-shaking, but they do tend to help in developing the characters.) A consummate filmmaker's filmmaker, Bogdanovich focuses his comments on the way the film was shot: Why the camera moves the way it does when it does, how the scenes were shot and why, which locations were used in which cities, and so forth. His knowledge of the craft of filmmaking is impressive; it's a shame to see him spin his wheels on a movie that doesn't really go anywhere. (He also seems overly fond of pointing out which shots were done in one long take, with no cutting.) But it's a very informative commentary nonetheless.
Three featurettes are included. "'The Thing Called Love' -- A Look Back" (22:21) is a new interview with Bogdanovich and all of the major cast, along with interview footage with River Phoenix from 1992. (Sandra Bullock's footage seems to have been shot back then, too.) They offer the usual reflections on making the film, describing their characters in terms that are obvious to anyone who's seen the movie, and heaping lots of wistful praise on each other and the late River Phoenix.
In "The Look of the Film" (7:44), Bogdanovich talks about the cinematography, after which costume designer Rita Riggs discusses her contributions. Viewers interested in either of those elements of filmmaking will find their comments mildly interesting.
"Our Friend River" (7:43) has Bogdanovich, Mathis, Mulroney and supporting actor Anthony Clark sharing memories of River Phoenix, who died a few months after the film was released. (Bogdanovich says it was the last film Phoenix completed.) Phoenix's fans should be delighted to hear his colleagues talking about what a brilliant actor he was. Those of us who failed to appreciate his genius may cynically wonder if these people would be nearly so fawning if he hadn't died.
The film's theatrical trailer (1:34) is included, too.
It's not the best work of anyone involved -- not River Phoenix's, not Peter Bogdanovich's, not even Dermot Mulroney's -- but it's a passable, mildly entertaining lighthearted drama. It's worth renting, but not owning, unless you're a hardcore River Phoenix completist.