Like father, like son

The Only Thrill, directed by Houston native Peter Masterson, is a conventional, sentimental movie that nonetheless hits where it aims. The film, which otherwise would be competent but unremarkable, is distinguished by two memorable actors--Sam Shepard and Diane Keaton--and by the chemistry that grows between these two principals as the story unfolds and their relationship deepens. By its bittersweet end, despite unlikely plot twists, unconvincing coincidences, and forced parallels, the movie packs an emotional punch.

The Only Thrill, which is set mostly in Lockhart, Texas, in the mid-'60s and Austin in the early '90s, is built around the relationship between this middle-aged couple; the film follows their trajectory almost entirely, and to the extent that other characters exist, they exist to illuminate and amplify the nearly endless affair between the two.

Reece McPherson (Shepard) is a rugged, handsome loner who drives a convertible Cadillac and opens a vintage-clothing store at age 44. His wife lies in the hospital in a coma; for all intents and purposes he's a widower, but one who's faithful to his marriage in his heart, if not, entirely, in the bedroom. Soon after Reece opens the shop, Carol Fritzsimmons (Keaton), a widow of roughly the same age, introduces herself as a seamstress and asks for work. The chemistry between Reece and Carol is understated, but immediately apparent. Deeply internal, Reece lights up when the funky, outgoing Carol shows up. Soon enough, he's helping her with the plumbing and making out with her on the bathroom floor.

Years elapse: In a pattern that's familiar from the self-help section, the woman wants to get close to her man but finds she can't. It's the film's key theme. Carol waves her other commitments in front of Reece. She's got a boyfriend--but Reece doesn't urge her to dump the guy, so Reece and Carol maintain a relationship that matters deeply to them but remains mostly platonic, built around Wednesday matinees at the local cinema. A decade later, as the two continue to be central to each other's lives but uncommitted to each other, she's got to move to Canada to take care of her dying sister. Reece doesn't lament the move as much as she'd hoped he might. She gives up on him, at least for the time being.

It turns out that their kids, who are in their 20s, have been engaged in a similar push-pull. Like their respective parents, sideburned good-ol'-boy Tommy (Robert Patrick) and the delectable Katherine (Diane Lane) have met, gone out, and messed around. And Katherine, like her mother, is leaving--just for a few months, to pursue an acting gig. But it turns into years.

The film gets more complicated from there, moving around in time and place, but its focus doesn't budge. Basically, the movie is a showcase for Shepard and Keaton, and a successful showcase at that. Their body language, inflection, and mannerisms communicate what the rather ordinary script can't.

Of course, Reece is a typical Shepard role, and one that will appeal to fans of both his plays and his screen career: the laconic, sensitive tough guy, harboring a wound that even he can't put into words.

Keaton's role, similarly, isn't terribly different from her memorable turn in Annie Hall, but here she's simultaneously drawn to and frustrated with an emotionally arrested Southwestern cowboy instead of being simultaneously drawn to and frustrated with an emotionally arrested New York Jewish nebbish.

It's a good thing that the tense, halfway-contained romance between Shepard and Keaton's characters is as powerful as it is; the movie doesn't offer a whole lot else. In fact, it's so busy developing two parallel relationships, and jumping around in time to demonstrate their development, that it doesn't leave room for much explication of atmosphere, locale, or era. The film is based on a play (Larry Ketron's The Trading Post), and despite some stirring scenery of the Texas countryside, it has the kind of small scale that generally works better on the stage than on film.

The Only Thrill is aimed at the same audience that loved The Bridges of Madison County, a viewership that has been drawn recently to both literary fiction and the rash of midlife, wisdom-of-the-East books that seem to have taken over the publishing market. It's an audience of Boomers, their youth fading, who are losing their faith in the possibility of romance--but not so completely that they can't be seduced by a good love story between good-looking, middle-aged people. It's a sign, then, of marvelous restraint on the part of the filmmakers that the movie engages in nearly no cheesy nostalgia or gratuitous period touches.

Strong acting and admirable restraint aside, the movie is almost done in by the unlikeliness of the parallel between the Keaton and Shepard characters, on the one hand, and their amorous kids, on the other. It's the kind of symbolism that works better in a play or a novel, though in both cases it would have to be more subtle; in the more expansive medium of film, the parallel seems forced. Of course, kids are often like their parents. But the parallel here is so literal--both Reece and his son can't commit to women, and they're in love with beautiful, considerate women who test their man by backing up repeatedly and who happen to be mother and daughter--that it strains credulity.

The Only Thrill.
Directed by Peter Masterson. Written by Masterson; based on Larry Ketron's play The Trading Post. Starring Sam Shepard, Diane Keaton, Robert Patrick, and Diane Lane. Now playing.

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