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 principles 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 the Lockhart, Texas, of the mid-'60s and the Austin of 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 betrothed 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 (who should see this "test" of his emotional seriousness coming from a mile away) 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 twenties, 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. (You almost wish Shepard, whose ear for the American language as it's spoken has few contemporary parallels, were allowed to write his own lines.)
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. (Shepard's acting, however limited, has cast light on his plays as much as interviews and literary criticism have.) Compared to his film debut, 1978's Days of Heaven, or his best-known role, '83's The Right Stuff, the Shepard we see here looks old and wrinkled, but somehow virile and compelling.
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. Neither actor breaks any new ground, but they manage to age convincingly as their characters do, and to reflect the changing tone of their many-layered relationship.
It's a good thing, too, 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 (or, one is tempted to say, their lack of 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 film's rep-company tone may come, too, from its director: Masterson, best known as co-author and co-director of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and a distinguished stage director, may be more attuned to the theatrical than the cinematic.
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 whom they can view as surrogates for themselves.
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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. The movie never panders. The greatest hits of 1966 don't play during the first act, for instance, and only a few cool cars and pointy collars are deployed to situate us.
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. (The chain of coincidences that establishes the parallel is not much better.) 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, and in a movie that's literally realistic in almost every other way, the parallel seems forced. Of course, kids are often like their parents, life is full of odd, shadowy patterns of repetition, and so on. 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. It makes an otherwise modest, classy film feel heavy-handed.
The Only Thrill.
Directed by Peter Masterson. With Sam Shepard, Diane Keaton, Robert Patrick and Diane Lane.