Late Quartet, A (United States, 2012)November 10, 2012
The entrenchment of a top-flight cast should not be considered an indication of cinematic quality. Although it's true that good actors can sometimes redeem a bad screenplay, more often than not, they end up becoming trapped by it. Such is the case with A Late Quartet. With superlative performers Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Catherine Keener holding down three of the four lead roles (the other one is Mark Ivanir, who was a late replacement for Ethan Hawke), expectations of something special would be entirely reasonable. They would also be misplaced. And the facile description of "it's not so much a bad movie as it is a disappointing one" is inaccurate. Yes, A Late Quartet is disappointing. But it's also pretty bad.
A Late Quartet provides a window into how a mash-up between Merchant Ivory and a telenovella might look. It's a curious and rarely satisfying mixture of lowbrow and highbrow. But one can't determine which came first... the snooty material or the soap opera stuff. Did writer/director Yaron Zilberman set out to make a movie about classical musicians then decided he needed to inject copious quantities of overblown melodrama into the mix to keep audiences awake? Or did he start with the cheesy narrative and chose to add a dash of culture as a lure to more sophisticated audiences? There's a sense that going all-in in one direction or the other would have produced something less schizoid than this.
The movie follows the ups-and-downs of the four individuals who comprise an elite, New York-based classical music quartet. And, yes, the rhythms of their lives mirror those of the music they play, providing copious opportunities for sledgehammer metaphors. They are the cold, egotistical violinist who formed the group 25 years ago, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir); the aging cello player, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken); and the husband-and-wife team of Robert and Juliette Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener). The soap opera trajectory begins when Peter is diagnosed with Parkinson's. This leads to a power struggle between Robert and Daniel. When Juliette seems to be siding with Daniel, Robert descends into self-pity and has an unwise, utterly predictable one-night stand. Meanwhile, Robert and Juliette's daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), decides to seduce Daniel. In A Late Quartet's interpretation of classical music, the on-stage performances are sedate, but there's plenty of action happening behind-the-scenes.
Character interaction is poorly motivated and the narrative is choppy. In many places, it seems as if important transitional scenes are missing. Individual sequences sometimes have power and resonance, but they are often poorly integrated into the overall context. For example, there's an enjoyable mother-daughter argument between Juliette and Alexandra when the former learns of the latter's affair with Daniel. However, the scene stands on its own. The romantic relationship has consequences but not the mother/daughter fight. In fact, there's not another meaningful scene after that featuring Juliette and Alexandria.
The performances of Walken, Hoffman, and Keener could best be described as "adequate." Hoffman and Walken in particular seem muted and all three are outacted by the lesser-known Mark Ivanir. It's disappointing when a director misuses the capabilities of a talented actor, but Zilberman does it with three of them. Imogen Poots injects some youth and energy into the proceedings but her character is thinly written and there's little she can do with some of the bad dialogue she's saddled with.
Maybe die-hard classical music lovers will react more favorably to A Late Quartet. Maybe the stories it relates are based on real-life "insider tales." However, to an average movie-goer, this film wastes a tremendous amount of acting capital in the service of an uneven and unimpressive storyline.
Late Quartet, A (United States, 2012)
Cast: Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots
Screenplay: Yaron Zilberman
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
U.S. Distributor: Entertainment One