Ensemble Piece, by Kyle Anderson
There’s something to be said for the staying power of monotony. A lot of people’s whole lives are based on a certain routine (job, family, etc) and they haven’t stopped to think about whether they’re really happy or not simply because, as the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is just as true for the successful and world-renowned as it is for Joe Blue Collar, only there might even be less reason to want to shake things up because they’ve got money and stuff. This is, essentially, what happens in Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet, where four accomplished musicians who’ve played together for years have to reevaluate their entire life when one of them is forced to retire. It’s an examination of the lives of four people that would have been much better if it had just been about one of them.
The Fugue is a very famous and successful string quartet who has been playing together 25 years. They are comprised of first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), a shrewd perfectionist, second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man for whom the safety of the quartet has gotten stale, his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) on viola, who does not want anything to change, and cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) who began with the quartet after being their college professor and is very much the heart and rock of the four. Also factoring in to the equation is Robert and Juliette’s violin impresario, college-age daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) who has grown up in the shadow of her parents’ acclaim and constant traveling. All of these characters have a deep and time-tested bond that is unshakeable until something comes along to shake it.
Before The Fugue’s 25th season is about to begin, Walken’s character is diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s which will effectively end his cello-playing permanently and will mean the quartet will change. How much it will change and whether they can withstand it is very much what the film focuses on. Robert longs to be able to play first violin at some point and resents Juliette and Daniel’s belief that he doesn’t have it in him. Daniel, after tutoring Alexandra for a bit, begins a romantic relationship with her which puts him at odds with her parents who are at odds with each other. Peter spends most of his time coping with his new life as a man staving off the coming storm of age and physical infirmity.
The problem with the film is that for the most part we’re expected to take all of these situations as the most monumental thing to ever happen to anyone, yet basically everything is something we’ve seen before: a couple wondering if they belong together; an older man starting a romance with a much younger woman; a daughter confronting a mother about how she was never around. It all seems very by the book and doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. Most infuriating is that, in each case, the overriding argument is that the quartet should come first and is more important than any one person’s wants or needs and yet we only ever hear the quartet play together in short snippets and a bit longer at the end. We’re just supposed to assume they’re the best in the world by how many magazine covers and documentary clips we see about them.
Everyone in the film is good, but they’re playing scenes that are beneath them. There are almost no scenes where more than two of the characters are in the same place at the same time and generally it’s just a conversation between two of the pieces. We never get a one-on-one scene between Walken and Hoffman, which is something from which the film could have deeply benefited from. The most problematic relationship is between Alexandra and her parents. There’s one short scene early on between father and daughter and it’s clear that they’re chums. There’s a scene much later in the film between mother and daughter, when Keener’s character uncovers the relationship between Poots and Ivanir and there’s much shouting about how she was a terrible mother who was never around, but this is literally their only scene together in the movie. We have no chance to see them interact normally so it seems like the daughter’s outburst comes out of absolutely nowhere.
With the albeit gorgeous setting of the classier parts of New York City in the snow-covered but sunny winter, coupled with these hollow interactions, the movie mostly feels like a whiny rich people story. However, there is one bright spot that is very bright indeed. Christopher Walken gives one of his most touching and nuanced performances in years. He’s become a bit of a caricature of himself over the last decade or so, but here he’s very grounded, kind, and introspective. We feel the full impact of his coming to terms with being alone (he’s a widower when the movie begins), growing old, not being able to do the thing he’s devoted his life to, and having a disease that will make living that much more difficult. He’s truly wonderful in the film and doesn’t betray his usual screen eccentricity. Between this and Seven Psychopaths, which is a bit sillier but no less weighty, Walken has delivered possibly two of his best roles in years. The entire film should have been about him.
A Late Quartet is a movie about people, but they aren’t really people with whom we can easily connect or relate. We’re left with a sense that being a professional classical musician is probably quite taxing. Great. The amount of importance placed on “the quartet” is never properly justified and one wonders how any of them have been able to stand each other over the past 25 years if all of these feelings were bubbling that close to the surface. If you’re going to see this movie, let it be for Walken’s welcome non-melodramatic performance and for the pretty scenery and soundtrack. Everything else is in too much disharmony; out of context and underdeveloped.