After a long delay, this Merchant-Ivory production isn’t worth the wait.
Hey, remember the 1990s?
Once upon a time, producing-directing team Ismail Merchant and James Ivory hit the art-house jackpot on an annual basis with their thuddingly obvious and overwrought literary adaptations that subbed as furniture porn, full of glorious period production design, choked-back emotion and helpful monologues that spelled out the themes of some fairly tricky novels. Anthony Hopkins was in there somewhere a good percentage of the time, too.
Alas, the times, they are a changin’. Merchant died five years ago, and The City of Your Final Destination has been languishing without a distributor for something like three of those. Now finally released, the movie has nostalgia on its side. In a time when Ellen Page and Zooey Deschanel have become the new hipster voices of Fox Searchlight’s faux-indie pseudo-blockbusters, with their cutesy music cues, the Merchant-Ivory stamp feels quaint, dull and adult-ish. This film is an endearing dinosaur.
Based on a book by Peter Cameron, The City of Your Final Destination stars Omar Metwally as an aspiring young scribe (helpfully named Omar) seeking to write a biography of his literary hero, a long-forgotten Wonder Boy who died as an expatriate in Uruguay after penning a one-and-done Great American Novel. In the kind of flourish that only Merchant-Ivory could throw in—but never dare to dramatize—our lackadaisical young fellow was spurred into action on his pet project after stepping in quicksand. (Yes, literal quicksand.)
Goaded along by his castrating, miserable girlfriend (Youth Without Youth’s Alexandra Maria Lara, way less adorable when she’s not screaming ancient Sumerian) Omar turns up on the doorstep of an estate owned by the late, legendary Jules Gund. Seeking “authorization” for his biography, our poor writer is tossed into a hornet’s nest of dysfunctional family dynamics, old resentments ricocheting off each other somewhere deep in the jungle—their isolation within this giant manse only exaggerating the seething hatred.
Hopkins headlines, albeit in a supporting role, as the deceased’s gay brother. Prone to protracted monologues about his collection of cravats (“I believe I bought this yellow one in 1966,”) he minces about with a Japanese boy-toy tending to household matters. Such theatrical trappings aside, it’s still an uncharacteristically subtle performance from Hopkins, who comes off as exhausted, bone-weary and ready to die throughout Final Destination’s running time. His resignation is oddly endearing.
Better, though, is Laura Linney, her face hardened into granite and shirt collars pulled up Dracula-style as the late, philandering author’s humiliated widow. A mini-masterpiece of disdain, Linney’s performance is pulled back tighter than her hairdo, all verbal shivs and “accidental” insults. She’s fantastically miserable, swiftly cutting through our dopey protaginist’s doe-eyed optimism with remarks that are only supposed to sound off-hand.
And then there’s Charlotte Gainsbourg, playing not just the dead writer’s scandalous baby mama, but also some sort of idealized figure Ivory can’t quite get his head around. There’s a great movie to be made about some rich guy’s wife and mistress being forced to live together after his demise, but this ain’t it.
Doing her best to strike sparks with the terminally recessive Omar, Gainsbourg wears thigh-high black hooker boots beneath her summer sundresses. But as this is a James Ivory film—and he’s never expressed himself better as an auteur than during the muted, quasi-chaste nonattraction in The Remains of the Day—Gainsbourg’s weirdo carnality is just another untapped resource.
All Merchant-Ivory productions are beautifully shot, and The City of Your Final Destination is no exception. Ivory constantly breaks up the frame to isolate characters within mirrors and/or dwarf them behind exotic landscapes—he knows what he’s doing as a director.
Still, the movie feels wheezy and exhausted. Metwally’s spineless Omar is one of the dullest leading characters we’ve encountered in quite some time. (Particularly when surrounded by such pros, the actor is dreadfully unappealing.) Ivory’s trademark fussy neat-freak tendencies asphyxiate any excitement.
It’s more suited for a museum than a multiplex.
Director: James Ivory
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Omar Metwally, Laura Linney
Running time: 118 minutes
Neil Barsky’s "Koch" Keeps It Light