As a middle-aged lady, sometimes I want to watch a movie deal with issues besides saving the world and having sex for the first time. Yes, those are interesting subjects, but I can only watch a superhero come of age so many times before I want to see something with a little more meat to it. A Late Quartet, directed by Yaron Zilberman, has a lot of things I want in a film: decent performances, a moderately interesting story, and good music. It also has a problematic script, hackneyed emotions, and a certain cluelessness about the privilege it portrays. It’s not a bad film—I got a little teary-eyed at the end—but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I left the theater thinking more about its faults than its virtues.
The story revolves around The Fugue, a successful classical quartet. The quartet’s cello player, Peter (Christopher Walken), has been diagnosed with the early symptoms of Parkinson’s, and his disclosure to the rest of the group sets off a chain of events that threatens all of their relationships. Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to use the introduction of a new cellist to start alternating as first violinist. He feels his talents have been wasted, and he wants to seize the limelight while he can. First violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) is the leader of the group, and doesn’t want to give up his position. He has given up any semblance of a life to his art, and doesn’t think Robert has what it takes to lead the group musically. Daniel also has his own personal crisis brewing, as he finds himself falling in love with Robert’s daughter and is hesitant to let passion lead his heart. Violist Juliette (Catherine Keener) is connected to each of the three men outside of the quartet; she is Robert’s wife, Daniel’s ex-lover, and Peter’s foster daughter. As she watches the quartet disintegrate, she deals with Peter’s illness, the failure of her marriage, and watching her old flame turn his sights to her daughter.
The performances in this movie are, for the most part, very good, and Christopher Walken shines. He doesn’t play his usual schtick here; he actually acts. I had forgotten how good he is, because he has been playing a caricature of himself for so long. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Philip Seymour Hoffman and he is what he is. He can phone this kind of thing in and it will resonate with some level of authenticity. Mark Ivanir is also very good as the repressed Daniel, although I have to say he is in a little too good of shape to be a violinist who never does anything but practice. (There is a scene where he takes his shirt off and he looks like he works out a lot. Not sure where he’s finding the time, what with all the hours he spends on building his own bows and gathering horsehair and stuff.)
Catherine Keener and Imogen Poots as Juliette and her daughter Alexandra don’t fare so well, and it is mostly because they aren’t given much to work with. Juliette is the center of all the relationships in the quartet, but somehow she remains opaque throughout the whole film. We never really know how she feels about anything or what her motivations are. Every other (male) character in the quartet is allowed to address the driving passion behind their career: what they want, why they do it, what they fear. Not her. At no point does she explain or even talk about her career as a musician, except for having to apologize to her daughter for not always being “there” for her. In fact, when Peter announces he will be leaving the group, her first reaction is to leave too. Even though she has been as dedicated as the men in building this career, she is willing to just walk away. She is only portrayed in light of her relationships, never being allowed to express how she feels, and often just posing with her viola in hand. It’s depressing. And Alexandra is only present in the film to create more emotional tension between the characters. She’s spoiled and annoying, and even though both parents spent equal amounts of time away from her on tour, she is only angry with her mother. Because bad moms are the worst, you know.
The world The Fugue inhabits is a rarified one of privilege and safety. These people are either massively successful beyond belief or are independently wealthy, because everybody has a gorgeous apartment and the ability to bid on $20,000 violins for their daughters. Everyone is white except for the Indian doctor (a cameo by Madhur Jaffrey, one of my favorite cookbook writers) and the exotic other woman (Liraz Charhi). (And an Asian musician who we see briefly on stage.) I can give you a lecture on stereotypes here, but I won’t. Women in this movie are either defined by their relationships or cast as the “other.” And that takes what could be a decent adult melodrama and makes it hard to like. There’s nothing really revolutionary about a bunch of men suffering from various mid-life crises, but there is enough here to make an enjoyable movie. But that’s not what I left the theater thinking. I left wondering how the filmmakers could be so clueless about the politics of what they were doing. I guess I expected something better from a film that purports to offer me something deeper than the average youth-oriented fare.
Final Grade: B-