As a playwright, Sam Shepard maintains a soft spot for the relationship between respectable men just a jiggle of the compass needle away from moral disorientation and bums more canny than their bad grooming suggests. In ''Simpatico,'' a stumbling adaptation of Shepard's 1994 play about men, horses, chance, and lies, Jeff Bridges plays well-dressed winner Carter, a wealthy Kentucky breeder; Nick Nolte is seedy loser Vinnie, tottering around downside Los Angeles. Twenty years ago, the two threw a race by blackmailing an official, Simms (Albert Finney), raking in the dough but poisoning their consciences. Now Carter is married to depressed, drink-addled Rosie (Sharon Stone), while Vinnie -- pickled himself -- yowls after Cecilia (Catherine Keener), a decent, honest supermarket clerk saddled with a whole lot of trouble on account of Vinnie's galloping heart. Redemptive love, Shepard suggests, doesn't necessarily finish first.
Simpatico is the name of a racehorse Carter is about to sell as the story begins; it's also an allusion to the mutable alliances -- Carter and Vinnie, Vinnie and Rosie, Cecilia and Simms, Rosie and Simpatico, horse country and flesh country -- that shift during the course of the story. (As young men on the make, Carter and Vinnie are played by Liam Waite and Shawn Hatosy.) But while such horseshoed symbolism may have worked in a play, ''Simpatico'' is a movie hobbled by unwieldy visual ideas, discordant filmmaking impulses, and performances so overblown and undercoordinated, the five principals might have been acting on five different soundstages.
Then again, even a seasoned film director might quail when faced with high-strung stock like Nolte and Stone, let alone a feature first-timer. British theater director Matthew Warchus probably just wanted to hide behind the cameraman when Nolte (hair and face in full distress, wardrobe seemingly recycled from ''Down and Out in Beverly Hills'') raged and glowered. And he likely fled the room when Stone (hair and face in homage to Kathleen Turner, gestures recycled from Kabuki) let loose, embellishing her line readings like a housewife who has spent all her afternoons studying ''All My Children,'' If Keener and Bridges escape relatively unscathed, it's because they behave like pros who realize that ''Simpatico'' is headed for the glue factory.