Whiling Away Time In A Writer's Long Shadow

Laura Linney

Garden of Eden: In the beautiful Uruguayan countryside, a prosperous plantation family hosts a biographer who wants to write about their deceased novelist patriarch. Laura Linney plays the defiant widow who refuses to give permission for the project. Screen Media hide caption

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The City Of Your
Final Destination

  • Director: James Ivory
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 115 minutes
Rated PG-13 for a brief sexual situation with partial nudity.

With: Anthony Hopkins, Omar Metwally, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg

Set in the present, James Ivory's new film has no lovely period threads or Tuscan villas. But it does have the usual exiles awash in ennui, and fans of Merchant-Ivory elegance will be relieved to hear that even though The City of Your Final Destination unfolds deep within a South American jungle, there are still fine vistas, fine wine, fine al fresco dining and very fine acting indeed on tap.

Indeed the performances, from the cream of the trans-Atlantic crop, might be too strong for this pale tale of bourgeois angst on foreign soil, based on a well-received novel by Peter Cameron. Ivory's partner Ismail Merchant died in 2005, and you have to wonder whether his absence exacerbated Ivory's relentless aestheticism. It has served him well in pictures like A Room With A View and Howard's End, where the subject was a spiritually airless world in decay; absent a strong plot or theme, though, his tastefully static mise-en-scene can lull you into the sort of numb quiescence that afflicts the film's polyglot group of expatriates.

We find this lot miserably cohabiting in a picturesque corner of the Uruguayan jungle, all of them unwilling prisoners of the legacy of an acclaimed writer, regrettably deceased. When he committed suicide, Jules Gund left behind a cobbled-together family consisting of Caroline, his impeccably dressed but bitter wife (Laura Linney), plus an earthy young British mistress named Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their little girl — a pre-Raphaelite beauty, it goes without saying). There is also a world-weary brother (Anthony Hopkins, who's tiptop with the world-weary one-liners but noticeably ill at ease playing a gay man) and his much younger Japanese lover (Hiroyuki Sanada), improbably named Pete. Hovering a touch redundantly in the past, but in lovely black-and-white footage, are Jules' parents, refugees from Germany who were hot tickets on the party circuit but (we dimly grasp) none too skilled on the child-rearing front.

Pretty soon there's opera on the soundtrack, and enter passion — in theory — in the form of Omar, a young post-doc who, at the behest of his bossy girlfriend (Downfall's Alexandra Maria Lara), arrives uninvited from the United States to research a biography of the dead writer. Decorative, wispy and naive, this nonentity (played wanly by Omar Metwally) seems an awfully vaporous catalyst for this sorry crew's awakening from their existential nap.

For one thing, he's no match for Gainsbourg's Arden, with whom he falls in love on the spot. (Mind you, fresh off Lars von Trier's polarizing Anti-Christ, the Wild Thing seems relatively toned down herself, swanning around in floaty frocks and sighing over love lorn and lost.)

For another, Omar is putty in the hands of Adam and Caroline, each of whom has a secret agenda for the proposed biography. Crude symbolism and Merchant-Ivory don't usually go together, but when poor Omar gets stuck in quicksand, falls off a ladder and walks through grass near a slithery snake in fairly rapid succession — call me prescient, but I saw a clear sign he was going to get all shook up really big, really soon.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Omar Metwally

Second Chance: Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Arden, the mistress of Uruguayan novelist Jules Gund who later falls for the new family visitor. Screen Media hide caption

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Well, kind of. "What a zoo that house is!" a neighboring socialite (Argentine actress Norma Aleandro) gaily observes. More of a petting zoo, really, so languid are its inhabitants and the pacing of the building crisis.

The City of Your Final Destination does eventually prove intelligent enough about how we all become prisoners of dependency and obsession. Yet for a movie that argues for free agency and following your bliss rather than your career, it's awfully torpid, no matter how many monsoon rains show up to signal the release of pent-up emotion. You can while away a perfectly pleasant 115 minutes with it — but for all the up-to-date jeans and T-shirts, it will feel like a lazy afternoon in the period-perfect company of early Masterpiece Theatre. When, toward the end, we find Omar back on campus in Kansas, exhorting his sleepy students to heart Tess of the D'Urbervilles, they shrug. I'm a Hardy lover myself, but I could see their point.

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