Maybe River Phoenix would have evinced the same nervous grace as an adult actor that he showed as a teenager. We'll never know. Last Halloween, as everyone knows by now, he died of a drug overdose. He left behind 2 1/2 movie projects. Silent Tongue, a drama written and directed by Sam Shepard (and filmed in early 1992), opens theatrically this March. The unfinished Dark Blood was junked. And The Thing Called Love, a country & western romance that has turned out to be the last film River Phoenix completed, makes its debut on home video this week.
The Thing Called Love is practically a straight-to-tape product. It barely saw the inside of theaters (receiving spotty play dates in the South and Southwest and later in Seattle), and it cruised below the radar of national reviewers. You can see why the studio wrote it off, too: As a snapshot of young songwriters in love, the movie is woefully predictable. Yet as a portrait of an actor flailing in inarticulate despair, it is riveting.
And Phoenix isn't even the main character. Samantha Mathis is, playing a tough but untested New York City girl named Miranda Presley (''no relation''), who arrives in Nashville hoping to make it as a singer and tunesmith. Falling in with the wannabes who cluster around the club-audition scene, she makes pals with a dim-bulb Alabama peach (Sandra Bullock) and ping-pongs between two different Cute Boys: sweet, dull Kyle (Dermot Mulroney) and rude, sexy James (Phoenix).
The gal, her pal, and two guys to choose from you're right, it does sound like half of the movies that have been made since D.W. Griffith first yelled, ''Action.'' But while a lack of originality can be finessed with moviemaking flair, Thing Called Love is as coy and unspecific as its silly title. Structured like a diagram in a Screenwriting 101 textbook, the movie wastes the talents of Mathis, Mulroney, and Bullock solid up-and-comers all (Mulroney squeezes what charm he can out of a warmed-over Ralph Bellamy role).
Mostly, this is another fruitless clue in that ongoing cinematic mystery: What the Hell Happened to Peter Bogdanovich? Years ago he was mentioned in the same breath as Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg young directors with singular visions. But Bogdanovich's few movies in the last decade are notable for their near-total lack of personality. What's worse, the director who used Hank Williams songs so brilliantly in The Last Picture Show as sardonic howls that mocked the characters from beyond the grave now appears to have no concept of what makes country music country. Cameos by K.T. Oslin, Trisha Yearwood, and Webb Wilder give Thing a surface legitimacy, but the songs performed by the main characters are a far cry from the Opry spirit. Miranda's ''breakthrough'' composition is a pleasant bit of fern-bar folk, while Phoenix sings a rocker called ''Lone Star State of Mine'' that might be of interest to Billy Joel's lawyers.
At least Phoenix gives his numbers an angry weirdness that passes for charisma. But whether or not the rumors of his drug use on the set are true, this actor does not seem all there. Certainly, his musical performances are oddly filmed: Microphones are consistently positioned to hide his mouth, as if it wasn't worth the trouble of getting him to lip-synch to his prerecorded voice.
And for the first time in his career, characterization gets in the way of the character. James is meant to be an immature but mesmerizing bad boy; the actor plays him as a withdrawn ball of angst who shies from the camera like a colt. There's a scene in which James talks Miranda into marrying him in an impromptu ceremony at a convenience store near Graceland. It's meant to be ''wacky,'' but Phoenix rushes through his lines with an edgy impatience that skews your view of Miranda: She'd have to be delusionary to take him up on it.
The Thing Called Love doesn't make a persuasive case for What Might Have Been, the way James Dean's whoop-up exit does in Giant. Rather, it starkly hints at offscreen turmoils. You sense River Phoenix would rather be elsewhere, and whether he's responding to the movie or to something larger is not ours to say. But the feeling persists. It's like watching a premature ghost. C-