“A Late Quartet”: Molto Eccessivo

I made a point of seeing “A Late Quartet” in the theater last night because my friend has a small part in it. Scripts that are set on stages of any sort – set in a theater troupe, a band, or a traveling circus – have a leg up on other stories, because the petty rivalries and hierarchies that define the characters come so easily, and finding activities for them to do while the viewer is digesting the action also comes automatically: just show them performing. It’s a cinch to create some intimacy between the viewer and the characters, because the moment we follow them offstage we become insiders. Then, as plot complications develop, the problems multiply naturally because characters react by going to other members of the inner circle, either for help or to settle old scores.

Kudos to Yaron Zilberman for the premise of this film, but I kept getting the feeling that he and co-writer Seth Grossman were blowing it. It feels like you’re watching a promising second or third draft that ought to be doing less.

The moment the Fugue Quartet, the four main characters, take stage in the first scene, I said “Uh oh.” A string quartet that includes Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, AND Christopher Walken? It’s the same feeling you get watching most Woody Allen films since around 1990: The cast are so well-known, you interact with them as celebrity spectacles as much as characters, and your expectations go out the roof. “I hope Walken pulls a shotgun out of his cello case,” I thought, but then it was time to get serious.

The basic story starts out strong. The cello player (Walken), who had been the teacher of the other quartet members at Julliard, gets diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s, and announces that he can only play for a short time longer. This starts a sequence of power plays between the other members and a young violinist, who is the student of two of the quartet’s members and the daughter of the other two.  The memorably smug and smarmy intensity the actor Mark Ivanir brings to the fourth member, the quartet’s founder, bodes well for us seeing more of him in major indie roles like this.

So far so good, but then the writers overdo it. The nest of inter-locking backstories gets exposed through clumsily obvious dialogue; why not save some secrets for the cast notes? When the characters get mad at each other, they hurl everything they’ve got, with lines like, “I did away with my other dreams!” Why not bury some of that in the subtext? When the daughter-student hollers, “I know what it’s like to grow up without a FUCKING MOTHER!” followed by a slap from said mother, I heard some cackles in the audience. I know Walken’s character is trying to slow the progress of Parkinson’s, but must he be taking medication in every scene?

I like movies like this, but the gushing reception they get from the critical establishment makes me despair for the state of cinema: Indie film A-list actors blessed by the spirit of none other than Beethoven! Many of the reviews, I might add, include unabashed musical puns. Do we need to guard the tradition of the ensemble film, and the notion that cinema itself is a high art, so vigilantly that we’re not allowed to call an overwritten script for what it is?

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