Too Late Quartet

Putting a small number of people in proximity in a situation in which they become dependent on each other – a journey or a collaboration – is a quick way to jump-start a drama. It becomes even better if they are family or in a family-like relationship.A small, tightly knit musical aggregation will do nicely. 

Consider, for example, Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet. In the 1940s Hollywood produced a few melodramas set in the world of classical music (Deception and Humoresque come to mind), with hilariously inappropriate cocktail party chatter about Ravel and Mozart mixed in with the bared talons of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The films had a certain, camp-laden amusement but the music tended more towards the post-Romantic wailings of Max Steiner at his most stentorian rather than actual concert pieces. To its credit, A Late Quartet takes its central musical vehicle, Beethoven’s Op. 131, very seriously and has some highly intelligent discussion of the piece and its extraordinary demands on its players. It gives the film an underlying gravitas that keeps it from flying apart at its most outrageous moments.

The premise is simple. The Fugue Quartet (Christopher Walken as cellist, Catherine Keener as violist, Mark Ivanir and Philip Seymour Hoffman as first and second violins, respectively) is celebrating its 25th year together but there’s a serious hitch. Walken, who is supposed significantly older, is struggling under the dual burdens of the recent death of his wife and Parkinson’s Disease. He wants to retire, but without him as the glue that holds the others together, the other three are soon at each other’s throats. Hoffman’s marriage to Keener is severely strained, their daughter (Imogen Poots) begins an affair with Ivanir, Hoffman covets the first chair and on it goes. Despite a performance of beautifully modulated injured dignity from Walken, the film is much more concerned with the banalities of the other characters’ domestic issues than his struggle with his own body in rebellion.

In a fugue state . . . Ivanir, Hoffman, Keener, Walken

It is possible – indeed, it is hinted at – that the Jewish women’s swim team in Zilberman’s splendid first film “Watermarks” was prone to similar jealousies and petty rivalries, but those estimable ladies had the Nazis to worry about and their athletic opponents on whom to focus any otherwise inappropriate rage. The Fugue have only one another, the mixed blessing of the hermetic existence of a long-running chamber group with its incestuously claustrophobic atmosphere. And of course when you put at least three Jews (Ivanir’s character, like the actor himself, is an émigré from the former Soviet Union, and Hoffman and Keener are playing characters named Gelbart) in a room, there are bound to be some fireworks.

The problem with “A Late Quartet” is that the fireworks are entirely too muted. The film is too solemn for its own good. Zilberman’s direction is carefully considered but, like Ivanir’s character, wrapped much too tight. The result is a classical music drama that could benefit from some of the unbuttoned lunacy of Bette and Joan.