Friday, April 5, 2013

A Late Quartet

2012, 105 min. R – one serious crotch grind, side boob, very little language
IMDB says... Members of a world-renowned string quartet struggle to stay together in the face of death, competing egos and insuppressible lust.
The 73rd Virgin says... I don’t remember the death part.

Christopher Walken reads from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets with the dubious story that this is what Eliot wrote about Beethoven’s Late Quartets. So the highbrow aura is established quickly.

Since it revolves around a classical music quartet and the entire movie appears to take place within about a six block section of New York City including Central Park, it is tempting to look upon this as American art-house fare. But it’s really part soap opera and part of the increasingly popular genre of “baby-boomers-dealing-with-the-indignities-of-age-that- their-parents-couldn’t-be-troubled-to-piss-and-moan-about”. That’s not to be dismissive. It is very enjoyable and vastly exceeds the sum of its parts.

I’m vaguely aware that there are classical music quartets out there who are the Led Zeppelin’s of their genre, and the fictional, “The Fugue”, is one of them. Walken is the cellist and senior member Peter, Michael Ivanir is Daniel, the first violinist and the Jimmy Page of the group who annotates the sheet music bar by bar with the names of his fellow members; when they should come in and how they should play and how they should bow, etc.; and he controls the entire sound.

Hoffman is Robert, the slightly schlumpy second chair violinist, who for 25 years has wished that he might occasionally be the first. Maybe he’s the George Harrison of the group. Keener as Juliette is the chick bassist - no actually she’s on viola. Robert and Juliette are the married couple with the requisite one gifted child who is moving up the ranks of violin players herself.

The Fugue is reassembling at Peter’s house to begin rehearsals for their 25th season on the road. These people’s lives are perfection. Every wood panel is polished; every piece of bric-a-brac is in its place; the coffee in the French press is rich reddish-brown; their professional skill sets are impeccable. Director Yaron Zilberman frames every shot just so. All is elegance. And suddenly, like Lou Gehrig unable to hit a curveball, Peter can’t get the vibrato right.

In a scene any boomer will recognize, he sits in front of a patient physician who observes him doing some simple exercises and wants to “wait for the tests”. This is brilliant scripting as Peter demands that she offer diagnosis without bloodwork, and then questions how she can be so sure of her diagnosis without the bloodwork.

It’s Parkinson’s disease and all these perfect lives are fixing to change. Robert picks this time to cloddishly demand that he and Daniel begin alternating or sharing first violin parts. Oh, and by the way maybe Daniel would like to be their 23 year old daughter’s private violin instructor. He knows himself well enough to resist at first.

The Fugue’s plan for the season is to play Beethoven’s Opus 131, a seven-part quartet that is meant to be played “attacca”, that is, without pause. Quite a trick for the aged and wobbly Peter.

And that’s about all the framework we need.

It would be easy to lose Keener surrounded by these screen legends but she has an amazingly convincing face. Her wordless expression of anger, disappointment, and resignation when she finds an unfortunate text on her husband’s telephone is perfect. But there is a bit of “Ordinary People” about Juliette, as well. She’s been stepping carefully around herself for quite a while.

Hoffman is a long way from The Master, shedding all the charisma that he usually displays in favor of the overweight jogger and frustrated second fiddle who has committed 25 years of humility to this project - not only to the group but to his family – and now he’s feeling angry and feeling his oats. Somehow the movie makes him sympathetic. It’s striking how good Hoffman is at delivering what is mostly General Hospital dialog.

Michael Ivanir is the least known actor and as Daniel has the least likable part. But after years of chilly self-control, when the first thing over which he has not had control in twenty years hits hard, he falls apart, too. I can’t tell if Imogen Poots as daughter Alexandra is good or not. She has a quirky slow drawl that sounds odd coming out of young New Yorker, and facial expressions that bounce all over the place. But she’s cute as a bug.

But the movie and story belong to Walken. There are still most of his beloved facial tics and odd phrasing, although dialed back a bit. It would be simple and boring to just have him play the part with dignity. Instead we get two brief scenes that sum up his position and state of mind; one is a much-needed jump cut away from the soapy plot line to find him suspended in a ridiculous diaper-like harness above a treadmill machine with his sweatpants half a foot up his ass and a foot above his old man tennis shoes; the other he is sitting in a room full of old sufferers being told by one of those soft-voiced sunny personality professionals how we can all adapt to this condition. He is uninterested in her exercises. Also, when he’s had all he can stand of his band mates’ antics, he kicks them all out of his house and tells one of them “shame on you”. A perfect old man moment.

He has, it seems, 4 or 5 long monologues that are riveting. Some of them I hope will enter the Walken famous quotes catalogTM along with, “more cowbell”, and “He'd be damned if any slope's gonna put their greasy, yellow hands on his boy's birthright”.

There are plenty of imperfect details, plot contrivances and convenient devices, and just as I was checking my watch and hoping for the rinse cycle, the story reverts back to Peter’s condition and the dignified resolution. The Fugue does not hit the top of the Billboard charts; Peter does not play until his fingers are bloody while the crowd looks on in tears; Robert does not bring down the house with a Purple Rain solo.

Instead Peter finds these three relatively young old friends in turmoil, and with fatherly firmness, relieves them of some of it. It is a lovely, dignified end that could have gone badly wrong in the wrong dramatic hands.

Netflix reviews have some musicians carping about the actors’ fingering or vibrato, blah, blah. There appear to be a total of 13 instrument coaches for the actors and two cello doubles. Now you know how baseball fans feel when Robert Redford bleeds through his shirt, or when William Bendix or John Goodman play Babe Ruth. Deal with it.

The additional music is by the eternal Angelo Badalamente who has credits going back to the early 60s. The movie is dedicated in part to his deceased son.

Since Fox/Youtube won't allow clips, I'm stealing Bunched Undies' idea and posting stills.

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