STARRING: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots, Wallace Shawn
DIRECTED BY; Yaron Zilberman
Every year there are Oscar contenders that are released, and basically just die, either because of a general disinterest from the public, a lukewarm reception from critics, or a combination of both. A Late Quartet was one of those films. From the previews, it looked like we might have some acting contenders in Hoffman, Keener, and Walken. The film is thematically right for Oscar consideration, so what went wrong? A lot.
A Late Quartet features four instrumentalists who are nationally renowned performers. Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays the second violinist and his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) is the violinist. They have a daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who is taking lesson from the first violinist, Daniel (Mark Ivanar). The cellist of the quartet is Peter (Christopher Walken), who operates basically as a father figure for the group, even though everyone in the group is a grown adult. The dynamic of the group is thrown into a blender when Peter is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Peter makes a decision that this disease means that he would need to replaced in the group, a decision that leaves the group at odds.
Robert feels that he is in a loveless marriage with Juliette. Juliette doesn’t know how to love Robert the way he wants. Robert wants to play first violin. Peter struggles with mortality. Alexandra might be in love with Daniel. Robert has a one night stand, throwing his marriage and the group dynamic into a food processor. Peter continues to struggle with his legacy. Daniel wants to sleep with Alexandra, but does he love her? Alexandra resents Juliette for not being there for her as a child, and performing a lot. Basically, everyone secretly hates everyone in the group, except Peter, who everyone adores.
What’s missing here is the idea that you can live with Parkinson’s Disease. Peter is surprised that he has it, when he is diagnosed, yet immediately is ready to retire. He doesn’t even wait to see how the medication works. Michael J. Fox has been living with Parkinson’s disease for years, and Peter gives up rather quickly. He’s not a fighter, so for him to be the wise father figure is almost sad for the group. He’s not a leader, he’s simply the oldest guy in the quartet. Peter is hard to sympathize with, because he cheats, and Juliette isn’t likeable either, as she sleepwalks through most of the movie, only occasionally sparking outward emotion. The strongest performances in the cast come from the two supporting characters, Alexandra and Daniel. Imogen Poots brings a different dynamic to the film as a daughter living in the shadow of this famed group, and how this dynamic has affected her life. Mark Ivanar makes a pretty strong breakthrough performance in this film, which is a shame, because no one saw it. He is a unique performer in his own right, even in a film with three incredibly strong actors.
The problem with the film lies in the fact that the three top actors weren’t given stronger characters, and stronger plot points. Soap opera storylines are still just that, even when performed by Oscar caliber talent. This film treads no new ground, even with the unique string quartet setting. You can’t be invested in characters like these. When you find yourself rooting for the guy who is sleeping with his best friends daughter, there is something wrong with the core dynamic in the film. Daniel isn’t supposed to be the hero, or the protagonist, but the other characters aren’t strong enough, or original enough, to pull focus.
So why was this film forgotten? Because the performances from Imogen Poots and a rather unknown Mark Ivanar weren’t going to be the driving force for this film awards wise, or at the box office. Walken, Hoffman, and Keener deserved better, and have gotten better work.
FINAL GRADE: C+