Monday, April 12, 2010

James Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination

The world is not exactly clamoring for a biography of Uruguay’s literary one-hit wonder, Jules Gund. Yet, in the publish-or-perish world of academia, Omar Razaghi’s career depends on his prospective book, but the Gund literary estate has withheld its official authorization. Such a literary premise sounds tailor made for a Merchant-Ivory production. Indeed, The City of Your Final Destination (trailer here), is a characteristically classy literary adaptation from director James Ivory, which finally gets a belated theatrical release this Friday in New York.

Ivory’s first film since the death of his longtime producing partner Ismail Merchant, City has been the focus of post-production litigation. Yet the film itself, based on Peter Cameron’s novel, is marked by its gentle restraint and Old World elegance. Still, when Razaghi sets off to Uruguay to plead his case to late novelist’s executors, he finds the living arrangements at Ocho Rios, the decaying Gund family estate, are decidedly non-traditional.

As they had before his apparent suicide, Gund’s wife Carolyn and his much younger mistress Arden Langdon, live together in an uneasy truce. The third executor, Gund’s brother Adam, also lives on Ocho Rios with Pete, his Japanese lover and the de facto estate manager. Though initially opposed, Langdon quickly reconsiders her opposition to Razaghi’s biography when she meets the intense but awkward academic. While Adam Gund was always in favor, Carolyn is dead set against it for reasons both obvious and obscure.

While City could be uncharitably described as talky, its characters actually have intelligent things to say. History, literature, art, and music are all important to them. Though a firmer editorial hand would have been welcome, the film boasts some wickedly pointed lines, adroitly delivered by a truly international cast.

Unfortunately though, Omar Metwally is a bland screen-presence as Razaghi, sinking into the background in nearly every scene. By contrast, Sir Anthony Hopkins is the personification of wit and sophistication as Adam Gund and Laura Linney is perfectly cast as the sharp-tongued widow. Even the waifish Charlotte Gainsbourg outshines the dull protagonist as the childlike Langdon. However, everyone is briefly upstaged by Norma Aleandro, the onetime Oscar nominee for Gaby: A True Story. Once exiled to Uruguay herself, the Argentinean actress steals each scene she appears in as the wealthy Mrs. Van Euwen, an outrageously flirtatious friend of the family.

City’s lush Latin American settings are a feast for the eyes and the soundtrack aptly mixes classical and Latin themes to evoke the perfect melancholy languor. Still, there are the occasional discordant notes, particularly Adam Gund’s relationship with his lover Pete, whom it turns out he adopted at the tender age of fifteen in order to bring him into the country. That is just plain creepy (and evidently illegal in Uruguay).

Lovingly crafted, City seduces viewers with its mañana ambiance and memorable supporting turns. Though not as substantial as the great films produced by the celebrated Merchant-Ivory partnership, it has its discrete charms. Recommended for literate (and patient) audiences, City opens this Friday (4/16) in New York at the Paris Theater.