Thursday, January 17, 2013

“A Late Quartet”: Chamber Piece or Soap Opera?

There is a reason this film has disappeared from movie houses with less than $2 million in domestic box office, despite knockout performances by Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A meditation on aging and debilitating illness, “A Late Quartet” should have been profoundly moving, and at moments it is. It is also really, really annoying.

Walken is the cellist and oldest member of a world-class string quartet. In early scenes he discovers that Parkinson’s disease is beginning to deprive him of his fine motor skills. As he watches his fingers lose their way, he realizes that he will have to make the next season—maybe even the next concert—his last.

Walken is the best thing in the movie; he has a scene near the end that will break your heart. So why does he disappear for long stretches? Why, despite moments of great pathos, did I want to give many scenes the raspberry?

Here’s why.

Director Yaron Zilberman and his co-scenarist Seth Grossman didn’t trust their material. Instead, they turned a chamber piece into a soap opera. The second violin (Hoffman) is married to the viola (Catherine Keener), who maybe always preferred the first violin (Mark Ivanir), who thinks the second violin is not good enough to play first violin, and the viola agrees, so the second violin gets jealous and takes revenge on the viola by sleeping with the flamenco dancer. Meanwhile, the first violin sleeps with the daughter (!) of the second violin and the viola (Imogen Poots).

One of the messages here, I suppose, is that group dynamics are tricky, artistic collaboration trickier. Mess with one ingredient and you throw off the recipe. Walken’s withdrawal leaves chaos in its wake.

But the moment the realization of his own mortality fell over Walken’s face, I thought this movie promised so much more. It should have delivered. The “late” quartet in question is Beethoven’s opus 131, a piece so moving that Franz Schubert wanted to hear it whilst he died. I wanted to move out of the theatre. This movie died.

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