SO, SIMPATICO GOES LIKE THIS: Jeff Bridges, back when his character was being played by Liam Waite, hatches a plan with buddy Nick Nolte, then portrayed by Shawn Hatosy, to use mutual love Sharon Stone, who used to be Kimberly Williams, to blackmail Albert Finney, who is always Albert Finney, into allowing them to win a huge bet on a rigged horse race. Now they're all unhappy.

It's not really as complex as I've made it sound (the whole story is one long jump back and forth between youthful flashbacks and middle age), but that is exactly the cumbersome muddle that first-time film director Matthew Warchus and his co-writer David Nicholls have made of an unexceptional Sam Shepard play. What might have been a noirish mood piece about hard-bitten regret just lies there and dies.

Some fleeting pleasures can be had watching the ensemble cast of solid actors gamely going for it. Catherine Keener plugs away in a dim, impossible part as a pawn for both Nolte and Bridges, and the unaffected intelligence of her work almost makes something of the role. Finney does a great turn as the ruined racing commissioner, communicating both weariness and resilience. While none of the flashback kids have a chance to make an impression, the star trio is all in fine fettle when Warchus leaves them to their own devices instead of worrying them to death. Outside of Gary Busey, I can't think of anything more unpleasant cinematically than a clenched, frantic Nick Nolte, but the edge works here. Bridges, one of American film's unsung heroes, subtly defrosts his character's cold heart in an admirable bout with directorial obviousness. And there are few greater guilty movie pleasures than watching Sharon Stone throw the kitchen sink of her acting technique squarely at you, boozing and drawling with studied abandon; she's like Joan Crawford after a few method classes. And I don't think that's a bad thing.

Unfortunately, even the unschooled will be able to tell the difference between Shepard's craft and what this adaptation has made of it, as the film alternates jarringly between grizzled lyricism and overblown Hollywood cheese.