An outstanding cast does what it can to enliven “Mr. Morgan’s Last Love,” a mostly mawkish melodrama from “Mostly Martha” helmer Sandra Nettelbeck starring Michael Caine as a crusty Paris widower and Clemence Poesy as the sprightly dance instructor who brightens up his days. Though the basic elements would appear to be here for a geriatric crowdpleaser in the “Quartet”/”Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” vein, the pic’s funereal pacing and relentlessly downbeat tone hew closer to a watered-down TV-movie version of “Amour,” with a treacly Hans Zimmer score subbed for Schubert. Out Aug. 22 in Germany, this second try at an English-language crossover pic by the Teuton Nettelbeck should travel further than the first (2009’s little-seen Ashley Judd vehicle “Helen”), but won’t spark the word of mouth needed for more than middling arthouse biz.
Nettelbeck adapted “Mr. Morgan’s Last Love” from French novelist Francoise Dorner’s “La douceur assassine,” changing the central character from a Frenchman to an expat American, a former philosophy professor who moved to the City of Lights with his late wife (Jane Alexander) to live out their golden years together. Three years on from her death, Matthew Morgan (Caine) still catches glimpses of the missus in all the old familiar places, though he himself is the one who’s taken to walking around like a ghost of his former self. Early in the film, he tries swallowing a whole bottle of sleeping pills to end it all, only to be saved by a knock at the door.
A more meaningful chance encounter arrives in the form of Pauline (Poesy), whom Matthew bumps into on the bus, then bumps into again a few days later. Her hair reminds him of his late wife’s, he says; his beard reminds her of her late father’s. Soon enough, he’s dancing the cha-cha-cha in her class and (in one of the pic’s typically clunky metaphors) literally letting some light into his musty apartment. Not too much light, though. Indeed, just when it seems that Nettelbeck is about set the film on cutesy autopilot, things stay more or less rooted in a hazy, depressive funk — which might have seemed a bold choice if the movie actually seemed prepared to deal with issues of loneliness and depression in the elderly. But alas, “Mr. Morgan’s Last Love” sticks to a flaccid middle ground lacking any real drama or pathos.
On some basic level, the movie never decides what the stakes are for Matthew and Pauline — if theirs is just a surrogate father-daughter relationship, or if there’s an undercurrent of real desire (as there was for Peter O’Toole’s character in the superior “Venus”). Then, after a second, more serious suicide attempt, Matthew’s two adult children (Justin Kirk and Gillian Anderson) arrive from America, along with their own predictable emotional baggage in tow (would you believe Mr. Morgan wasn’t the greatest dad in the world?) and squabbling about what to do with their share of Mom’s vacation home in Saint-Malo. Audiences with a limited tolerance for movies about rich people’s problems are strongly advised to steer clear.
Saddled with a pretty thankless role, Anderson at least plays it to the hilt, giving the movie a much-needed shot of energy as a brassy shopaholic who seems giddy to be free of her own husband and kids for a few days, even if it is under less-than-desirable circumstances. As for Caine, he could play this role in his sleep, and frequently seems to be doing just that. Poesy is a sunny presence, but has been given nothing to work with.
The movie has a stilted, airless feel, as if Mr. Morgan had already succeeded at offing himself and we were now drifting alongside him through some odd limbo. The actors deliver their lines in a slow hush amid a conspicuous lack of ambient sound, even in crowded public spaces. But Paris looks indisputably lovely through the lens of cameraman Michael Bertl.