Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Late Quartet

The first hour of Yaron Zilberman’s “A Late Quarter” offers an exceptionally perceptive look inside a highly successful, longtime chamber music string quartet, consisting of first violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violin Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Robert’s wife, viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener), and their common mentor, the cellist Peter (Christopher Walken).

Peter begins experiencing stiffness in his hands and makes an appointment with his doctor (Madhur Jaffrey, making a strong impression in a small part), who matter-of-factly diagnoses him with early-stage Parkinson’s. Devastated, but never one to bullshit, Peter informs the quartet at their next rehearsal. He wants their first concert of the coming season to be his finale, and his sometime fill-in Nina Lee to take his chair permanently thereafter. Robert, who’s spent his adult life silently stewing in the second chair, takes this opportunity to announce that if the quartet continues without Peter, he wants to alternate first violin with Daniel, who by the way may have had an abortive romance with Juliette during their Juilliard years.

Zilberman’s script (with Seth Grossman) is strongest in this first half. The politics of first and second violin – not only between Daniel and Robert, but also in an especially well-written backseat-of-a-cab conversation between Robert and Juliette – is fresh and fascinating. It’s not that the second violin is inferior to the first violin, but when there are solos, they go to the first chair. Walken underplays against type, embodying Peter’s reactions to his diagnosis with honesty and dignity and not a trace of his usual histrionics. Peter is more than a medical chart; his role as the quiet leader of the quartet is well fleshed out.

Unfortunately, in the last 45 minutes, Zilberman undoes most of the good he’s done up to then, and the movie becomes drama, drama, drama. After that talk with Juliette in the taxi, Robert, whose jogging buddy happens to be a Latin bombshell (Liraz Charchi), allows himself a one-night-stand with her that imperils his 25-year marriage. This subplot strains credulity, not so much because of the beauty gap between Hoffman and Charchi but because it’s so underdrawn and seems incongruous with Robert’s sense of integrity. Robert and Juliette’s daughter Alex (an in-over-her-head Imogen Poots) has been taking violin lessons from Daniel and develops feelings for him which he – after first demurring – reciprocates. This relationship takes credulity beyond the breaking point. There was laughter in the audience at points.

Finally, at Peter’s farewell concert, something happens that would simply never happen, after which the filmmakers allow Walken a farewell speech under circumstances that bear no relation to the real world. It’s a preposterous finale, and a shame, as there had been so much to appreciate in the first half of “A Late Quartet.”

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