Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anthony Hopkins, Omar Metwally, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Hiroyuki Sanada, Norma Aleandro, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ambar Mallman, Norma Argentina
Written by: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on a novel by Peter Cameron
Directed by: James Ivory
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a brief sexual situation with partial nudity
Running Time: 118
Date: 03/21/2009

The City of Your Final Destination (2010)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Book Clubbing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As per Peter Cameron's novel, James Ivory's new movie The City of Your Final Destination takes us into the jungles of Uruguay, where the sun shines through the slats of the trees, the air feels fresh and you can practically smell the coffee wafting through the old house. It's a very relaxing movie at times. It's too bad that old Ivory, now 81 and working for the first time without his old producing partner, the late Ismail Merchant, couldn't relax as well.

As always in Ivory's movies, he's mostly concerned with successfully transplanting the source material to the screen, rather than making it move or adding anything of his own. He, along with Merchant and regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, have perfected this kind of polite, respectable, literary movie that seems refreshing, especially compared with most of the rest of America's vulgar, commercial cinema. The trouble is that the Merchant-Ivory brand has very little to do with cinema, and it's basically riding on the coattails of literature; it's furthering the myth that literature is better than cinema.

And so Ivory and Jhabvala set up their scenes with routine, recognizable staging, and introduce their characters with expository dialogue. When one character is about to be stung by a bee, Ivory lays out the shots with absolutely no idea as to how to surprise us. He knows the character is about to be stung because he has read the script, and he shows us the sequence of events, in order, with no concept of unfolding them uniquely or building them rhythmically.

The movie's hero, Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), is a professor who wants to write a biography on a deceased author named Jules Gund. He needs to get the permission of Gund's brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins), Gund's wife Caroline (Laura Linney), and Gund's younger mistress Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with whom he fathered a child, Portia (Ambar Mallman). All of them, including Adam's younger lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), live in a remote house that was left to them by Gund.

Omar arrives, despite having been told that permission for the biography has not been granted. He's a pushover and a milquetoast, but Adam likes him and wishes to use him to smuggle some valuable jewelry back to the States. Arden also likes him, and finds herself smitten with him. But Caroline is not easily moved and still refuses to grant her permission, claming that Jules himself wouldn't have wanted it. Later Omar's girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara) arrives, and we discover just why such a wuss would have traveled to Uruguay when he was explicitly told not to; Deirdre is a controlling, manipulative shrew. She instantly rubs the Gund family the wrong way, and causes sparks to fly.

Actually, "sparks flying" is a bit optimistic; in Ivory's film they're more like a wet fizzle. Since Ivory's primary concern is characters on a page, rather than characters of the flesh, he has a hard time making most of them live and breathe. Thankfully, Linney and Hopkins -- the latter of whom was in two of Ivory's best-loved films, Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993) -- rise to the task and fill in the blanks. They're both bored and cynical and ready to let fly with a choice line of dialogue: usually the truth, or at least a deliberate lie. Linney is icy and comfortably superior, while Hopkins is charming and foxy, and they're both a joy to watch. They help pass the time swimmingly. Gainsbourg, on the other hand, plays a rather simplistic soul, instantly and unconvincingly struck by Omar, but at least she's easy on the eyes. The jungle air seems to have done her good.

Omar is the film's biggest trouble. He's too polite and inactive for most of the film, and when he's offscreen for a large chunk of time due to the bee sting, we hardly miss him. When his character arc finally kicks in, it's too little, too late. Deirdre is hardly a balance for him; she's nasty and abrasive, and they're a couple we don't want to spend any time with. We can't even understand how they can stomach each other. But unfortunately, they're the film's driving force, and its center, and Ivory dutifully keeps them there, unaware of whether or not they're working. The film also ends on a strange, completely needless epilogue, centered on two characters that we have no more interest in following.

The cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) makes up for some of these failings with a very lively South American atmosphere, slightly sultry and filled with warmth and flowing air. The Gunds, their old house and all the relics inside it give off the feeling that they have been there for a long time, soaking up this ambiance. Thanks to this and the saucy performances by Hopkins and Linney, The City of Your Final Destination clocks in as Ivory's best movie in some time, but it's still far too uneven and careless to recommend.

(Insert your favorite Final Destination horror franchise joke here.)

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