The petty quarrels of the heirs of a Uruguayan novelist are the weak motor of “The City of Your Final Destination,” helmer James Ivory’s first pic after the death of producing partner Ismail Merchant. Languid, multi-accented adaptation of the contempo novel by Peter Cameron suffers from an unfocused screenplay and direction, and won’t win Ivory any new fans despite a name cast that includes Anthony Hopkins and Laura Linney. Pic’s most likely destination will be a high-end tube slot and bonus disc in the inevitable Merchant Ivory box set.
After Merchant’s death during the production of “The White Countess” in 2005, Ivory went on to film this project in 2006. The film had a special premiere in New York in late 2007 before falling off the radar until it turned up at the Berlin and Cannes markets this year.
Young Iranian-American academic Omar (Omar Metwally) receives a letter of refusal from the heirs of scribe Jules Gund. This puts Omar in an awkward position, as he had told his university he already had the go-ahead for an authorized biography on Gund.
Worried about his academic future and repeatedly nagged by his pushy g.f. (Alexandra Maria Lara, as the pic’s most one-note character), Omar travels to Ochos Rios, Gund’s estate in Uruguay, to convince the executors of the necessity of his work.
The motley crew he finds there includes Gund’s spurned wife, Caroline (Linney), and mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourgh), who live together with Arden and Jules’ daughter. Adam (Hopkins), the novelist’s older brother, lives nearby with his much younger Asian lover (Hiroyuki Sanada).
Things quickly start to look up as Omar is made to feel at home despite the heirs’ letter of refusal. The screenplay, by Ivory regular Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, then dutifully ticks off the one-on-one conversations Omar has with each heir to achieve his goal.
The subsequent procession of talking heads makes it difficult to piece together a coherent idea of the shared history of these disparate characters — especially because the novelist himself, who committed suicide, remains something of an enigma.
Thesps’ very different acting styles — Linney in frigid, acerbic mode; Ivory vet Hopkins as another benevolent, fatherly presence; Gainsbourg as the low-key younger gal with the come-hither voice — do not help. And, as in “Rendition,” Metwally is a largely passive participant.
Like Ivory’s last two contempo outings, “Le Divorce” and “Slaves of New York,” “The City of Your Final Destination” suffers from the lack of a clearly delineated code of conduct in which each faux pas raises a red flag, and thus raises the stakes. In today’s world, eccentric behavior is simply filed under the “live and let live” label, and because Jhabvala and Ivory remain committed to documenting social interactions in infinite detail, pic is reduced to a not unpleasant series of conversations with the occasional bon mot. But behind all the talking –unsurprising, as Cameron’s novel is also dialogue-heavy — there is no real sense of who any of these characters are.
Pic, filmed mostly in Argentina on what looks like a tight budget, was shot by Spanish d.p. Javier Aguirresarobe (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), whose lensing is impressive without being flashy. Other tech contributions are modest, which will disappoint fans looking for the impeccable packaging that is the one universal constant in Merchant Ivory films. Ironically, the score by Uruguayan composer Jorge Drexler (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) is probably the most generic contribution.
Images of Venice in the ’50s, shot by Ivory himself, are awkwardly inserted in an attempt to add some background on the Gund family. However, they make sense if the pic is, as reported, Ivory’s last feature, as the helmer’s first film was the 1957 docu short “Venice: Themes and Variations.”