The City of Your Final Destination
|Omar Metwally||Omar Razaghi|
|Alexandra Maria Lara||Dierdre|
|Directed by||James Ivory|
Merchant-Ivory is a brand name that has inspired confidence for almost half a century. The imprint endures, although half the team, the producer Ismail Merchant, died five years ago. The City of Your Final Destination, which went into production shortly after Merchant's death, and was completed three years ago amid a mess of financial and legal problems, is now being released. Word has it that this is the swan song of 81-year-old director James Ivory. If that proves to be the case, this picture would deserve attention simply out of respect, if for no other reason. But of course there are other reasons, if not perhaps quite so many or of such persuasiveness as in the past.
City carries a number of familiar Merchant-Ivory trappings. It has a literary provenance (adapted from the 2002 novel by Peter Cameron) and a literary theme, it's high-minded, mannerly, and languidly paced, and it boasts a fine cast headed by Merchant-Ivory veteran Anthony Hopkins (The Remains of the Day, Howard's End), Laura Linney, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The story follows the fortunes of Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally, Munich), a young Iranian-American literature instructor at a Midwestern university, whose request to do the authorized biography of Jules Gund, a deceased Latin-American author, has just been rejected by the writer's heirs. Prodded by his girlfriend Dierdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), a colleague with the accent and temperament of a Nazi prison guard, Omar packs his grip and heads for Uruguay to try and change their minds.
The minds belong to the late writer's brother Adam (Hopkins). a charming idler whose principal passions are alcohol and his younger Japanese lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada); Caroline (Linney), the writer's embittered widow; and Arden (Gainsbourg), his mistress. They, along with Arden's little daughter by Jules, all live uneasily together at Ocho Rios, the Gund estancia miles from anywhere in darkest Uruguay.
The easiest mark is Adam, who is rather inclined to encourage Omar's project in hopes that it will elevate interest in his late brother, and sell more of his books. Or book; Jules Gund, it develops, only wrote one novel, an autobiographical fiction about his family and a gondola they brought with them from Venice to South America. There are rumors of a second manuscript, left unfinished when Jules applied a bullet to his brain.
The next to fall is Arden. She tumbles first for the handsome Omar, who seems to be the first straight man to appear at Ocho Rios since Jules's demise. It is Omar's dazzling white smile, rather than any arguments he offers, that melt her uncertain resolve. In fact his arguments are neither forceful nor passionate. Omar is charming but flaccid, the soft center of this story.
Caroline is the last holdout, and at one point Omar pleads to her that failure to secure her authorization will spell curtains for his career and his girlfriend. Caroline retorts sagely "Are you sure that's what you really want? That career? That girlfriend?" These are questions to which we know the answers long before poor Omar cops to them.
A misadventure with bees lands Omar in a coma in intensive care, which brings Dierdre to Ocho Rios. There is not much likable about her, but she does bring certain issues to a head. She discovers Adam's plan for Omar to reciprocate for his blessing on the authorized biography by smuggling some jewelry back to the States for sale. Dierdre may not be pleasant, but she seems to have a more finely tuned moral and legal sense than her easygoing fiancé. And of course she puts the brakes on the romance growing between Omar and Arden.
Ivory directs with the same elegance and intelligence that have been his hallmark, but there's some bite missing from the movie that leaves it adrift. It's like Paul McCartney's songs after the split with John Lennon – there's some good stuff, but nothing classic. The script by longtime Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is literate and smart, but it sometimes has the tendency to hit things on the head a little too pointedly.
To some extent that’s true of the performances as well. Laura Linney is marvelous as the terse, unbending Caroline, but you sometimes wish there were a few more facets to her character. And that is true in spades of the bitchy Dierdre. Hopkins is beautifully nuanced and suitably elusive as Adam, and so is Sanada as his companion. The one who really leaves you captivated is Gainsbourg, who floats through like quicksilver, never quite where you think she's going to be. Gainsbourg has that Belmondo-like homely beauty that can be so much more intriguing than the obvious kind.
Metwally's soft-centered lack of impact in a curious way allows the others room to dominate the interest of this story. Early in the movie he almost sinks into a pit of quicksand, a scene not without symbolic overtones (despite a lack of drama in the way it's shot). And near the end, back at college and lecturing on Thomas Hardy to his literature class, he points out that Hardy's characters are trapped by Fate. "What if one decides to do something about it?" he speculates.
The City of Your Final Destination (your guess is as good as mine on the title's meaning) doesn't measure up to the best of Merchant-Ivory, but it offers satisfying pleasures. If this is the end of the line that began in 1965 with the lovely Shakespeare Wallah, and along the way delivered such gems as A Room With a View and The Remains of the Day, it's a worthy way to take a bow.
© Text 2010 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be