Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The City of Your Final Destination: A Literary Perambulation

No, this is not the horror movie about kids being hunted by the vengeful spirit of Ironic Death. In fact, quite the opposite – based on a novel by Peter Cameron, and directed by James Ivory of Merchant Ivory fame (the first film since the death of his partner, Ismail Merchant), The City of Your Final Destination is a relaxed, literary film about a graduate student thesis. Like “gradual students” themselves, this movie is rather absent of tension and instead focused on travel, self-discovery, romantic ideals, and cultural exchange.

Omar, a handsome literary studies student, needs to write a biography on the recently deceased writer Jules Lund (one of those rare celebrity writers who achieved fame by writing only a single book – the type of writer whom I suspect exists only in the minds of other writers), in order to complete his thesis and retain his employment in a New York university, where he works alongside his current girlfriend, Deirdre. Unfortunately, Lund’s executors – his brother and his two former wives – have declined authorization. The hapless Omar feels that this is the end of his career, but Deirdre convinces Omar to make a trip to Uruguay, where he should confront the Lunds in person and persuade them to change their minds.

What follows from this premise is rather like a classic European new-wave film: Omar stumbles into the Lunds' lives – and through the beautiful Western landscapes of rural Uruguay, his own youthful idealism, and the idle luxury of the Lund estate, begins to transform the relationship of the three remaining Lunds, and the self-awareness of Omar. One can’t help if Ivory wasn’t attracted to a movie about an absent major talent – and the lives he’s left behind – due to the similarities to his own situation.

This type of movie isn’t for everyone – and screenwriter Ruth Jhabvala stumbles into some painful literary symbols (such as a stuck shoe in the mud, to symbolize Omar’s sinking feeling, or a bee sting, to signify his sudden transformation and awakening). Yet in an early summer movie landscape largely catering to superhero teenagers and warring aliens, the cultured conversations, luxurious landscapes, and casual pace of the film can feel like a brief elixir. The actors are all marvelous – particularly Anthony Hopkins, as the elder, gay Lund brother, and Laura Linney, as Lund’s first wife Caroline, who’s casual resentment at Lund makes her the hardest for Omar to convince.

One feels the elevated intuitions of the actors (and director) struggling against what feels like at times a bit of a lazy script: for instance, Omar confesses at the end of the movie having to chase after his lost dog in that early scene where he loses his shoe…but we saw that scene, and the writer had chosen then not to give us the full information in the scene that the dog is actually lost rather than out for a casual walk. The speech is well delivered, but getting the information explained to us, rather than shown in the dramatic action so we can deduce these insights for ourselves, keeps the film from rising to true art. Similar problems exist as Adam Lund explains about his parent’s exile from Germany, and as Omar explains how he is falling for Arden, Lund’s mistress, over his present girlfriend, Deidre.

That is to say, this film will seem way too talky for some, while others will appreciate the chance, for a change, to enjoy adult conversations in cinema. I certainly loved the film’s literary quality, and how it seemed to remain true to the source material. Despite the focus of the script staying away from the suggested final evolution of the title and more toward the intimate interior of the imperfect present, Ivory has left the original title, a good example of the movie’s casual approach to its own themes.

Ultimately, Final Destination does pose an intriguing question: it asks us to consider the difference between literature and life. All the characters learn to regard their fine principals about literature a little less, and the imperfections of life a little more. In this regard, the film keeps a fine balance between its own artistic conceits, and the improvisational attitudes towards its characters. In the end, all the characters grow a little, and move on to ultimate destinations of greener pastures from this season of literary seclusion and introspection, and through their reminiscences of a great absent talent. Ivory's film without Merchant may not seem to have the weight of their work together: but like youth and art, this fragile springtime work, which may be easily forgotten come the heat of the summer, is worth taking in while it’s here.

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