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River Phoenix’s final performance elevates this earnest ode to country music

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the Paul Walker-led Furious 7 still doing gangbusters business, we look back at other final films from actors who died too young.

The Thing Called Love (1993)

Taken at face value, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love is a collection of hokey clichés. The story, formulaic as they come, concerns a New York City girl named Miranda Presley (Samantha Mathis) who ditches the Big Apple for Nashville, where her dreams of being a country music star are complicated by her romance with spotlight-bound rogue James Wright (River Phoenix) and her friendship with aw-shucks songwriter Kyle Davidson (Dermot Mulroney). Equal parts coming-of-age saga and love triangle, it’s a compendium of goofy high jinks and colorful supporting characters, the latter led by Sandra Bullock as Miranda’s boisterous best friend Linda Lue Linden, who tells all her secrets to her dog and has a dutiful, doting boyfriend (Anthony Clark) who functions as her veritable second pet. Yet if the narrative is of a been-here, done-that persuasion, that’s ultimately deliberate, as Bogdanovich treats his material like a country song—namely, as a portrait of courtship, heartbreak, and self-actualization whose earnestness helps its familiar situations and emotions ring true.

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For a tale about artists struggling to make their way to the Grand Ole Opry and beyond, The Thing Called Love’s actual songs are a letdown, which clashes with the film’s overarching fantasy about people finding their figurative voice—and thus their paths in life, and happiness—through music. Nonetheless, the performances rarely falter, with Mathis exuding both charm and grit as Miranda, and Bullock exhibiting a light, breezy energy that helps sell the cornball plotting, which includes sequences involving Kyle trying to hop aboard a moving freight train and James proposing to Miranda in a convenience store (followed by the couple actually marrying). Mostly, though, The Thing Called Love remains a reminder of the late Phoenix’s still-untapped potential. In his last completed cinematic performance before fatally overdosing in October of 1993, Phoenix elevates even the silliest scenarios with a poised blend of swoon-worthy sensitivity and swagger. In the process, he offers a final glimpse of the magnetic charisma that made him a star.

Availability: The Thing Called Love is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchase through the major digital services, and is currently streaming on Netflix.

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