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The Man from Elysian Fields

Director: George Hickenlooper
Cast: Andy Garcia, James Coburn, Olivia Williams, Mick Jagger, Julianna Marguiles

(Sony; US theatrical: 18 Mar 2003; 2001)

Tasteful Artifice

The Man From Elysian Fields, now on DVD, is the sort of movie some people will call “literate.” The film is variously about writing, sexual manners, commitment, and self-respect, and it is certainly literate, in that the characters have done lot of reading and so, presumably, have the filmmakers.


But the result is neither an intelligent tribute to writers and their words, like Shakespeare in Love (1998), nor a thought-provoking mediation on writing and life, like Adaptation (2002). Though it’s a small, independent movie, it has the contrivances and heavy-handedness often associated with big studio Oscar bait. The movie is heartfelt and pretty, but it’s hard to really believe in the characters or situations. It achieves a sort of tasteful artifice in place of genuine artistry.


As Byron, Andy Garcia is this quality personified; alternately wearing and ditching his glasses with heavy-handed symbolism, he looks like a generic (if earnest) Hollywood impersonation of a writer. A struggling novelist, he has written an unsuccessful first novel, and cannot sell his follow-up work. It is a measure of the film’s muddled execution that we are never sure about many of its details, whether Byron’s name is an intentional reference to (or an ironic joke about) Byronic heroes, for example, or how we might feel about Byron’s writing (it’s never clear if he’s a hack or a struggling talent).


Desperate to support his wife (Julianna Marguiles) and child, Byron finds work at a male escort service called Elysian Fields. Soon, he is sleeping with Andrea (Olivia Williams), wife of renowned, dying author Tobias Alcott (James Coburn), and co-writing Alcott’s final work. Byron is still growing as a writer and a person, while Alcott is reaching the end of his life, and career. Complications ensue.


Films about writers and writing are nothing if not complicated to write, to stage, to act without turning dull or self-indulgent. There have been a few good ones recently—Wonder Boys and Almost Famous (both 2000), and Adaptation—but these movies revel in the neurotic specificity of their subjects’ muddled lives and works. Elysian Fields seems to be aiming for this level of insight, but its screenplay, by Phillip Jayson Lasker, misses its mark throughout. It is written with care, but not particular skill.


While it includes comic undertones, the script has a habit of wandering into philosophical territory, as when a funny conversation between Byron and Tobias about ducks morphs into a clichéd lament about the grandeur of eagles. Coburn in particular is marooned by these lurches into sentimentality; sometimes, when dispensing cantankerous grandfatherly wisdom to Byron, he begins to sound like that “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” song.


The cast member best served, surprisingly, is Mick Jagger, playing Luther Fox, the head of Elysian Fields with quietly dapper charm. Even as he keeps popping up from out of nowhere, like Chris Walken in Nick of Time, Jagger’s scenes are the best in the movie, wry and faintly regretful. Luther Fox belongs in another, sadder and funnier movie.


Jagger and the rest of the movie do look handsome on DVD. Maybe too handsome. The widescreen transfer highlights its glossy lushness, which seems vaguely out of place for the subject matter. It’s a nice-looking movie, but also generic; despite much swirling and swooping of the camera, Fields winds up looking like a moderately well directed TV movie. The enhanced sound of DVD also highlights an overbearing score that alternates between soapiness and indie-movie piano bits. The commentary track includes Hickenlooper, Lasker, and Garcia, but this isn’t the sort of movie that inspires repeated viewing.


In fact, The Man From Elysian Fields is sort of like a novel you don’t mind reading, and then never think about again. “You’ve got to learn to listen for adjectives,” Luther advises Byron at one point, a clever line that is thoroughly applicable here: The film is literate, but not good.

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