A fine cast further illuminates a felicitous script in “The Man From Elysian Fields,” an engaging tale about a down-and-out writer whose provocative solution to helping his family only places it in greater peril. This well-made indie got lost in the shuffle at its Toronto fest world preem due to its immediate post-Sept. 11 scheduling slot, but the picture deserves further fest exposure and a commercial shot based on above-average qualities in all departments. Strong reviews would be needed to complement thesp names in putting this personable work over as a specialized theatrical release, where edgier fare is the more welcome commodity, but pic would also be a good fit for quality cable and international TV slots.
A fanciful take on the dilemma of what a decent man might do just to make ends meet, pic stars Andy Garcia as Byron Tiller, a Pasadena-based novelist whose most recent tome went straight to the remainder table and understandably can’t muster an advance on the new book he wants to write about migrant workers. His wife Dena (Julianna Margulies) is still endlessly supportive of his unrenumerative career choice, but the desperate Byron has come to realize that a radical move is required to support Dena and their young son.
A possibility presents itself courtesy of Luther Fox (Mick Jagger), a dapper gent with offices at the same run-down Hollywood and Vine office building where Byron maintains a cubicle. In short order, the silken-tongued Luther offers the quick lucre Byron needs if the good-looking scribe will come work for him at Elysian Fields, an elite male escort service primarily catering to wealthy women. After some obligatory I-could-never-do-that-ing, Byron reluctantly decides to give it whirl, and he is excited to learn that his designated partner, Andrea Allcott (Olivia Williams), is the lovely young wife of one of his heroes, great novelist Tobias Allcott (James Coburn).
With the proceedings already well lubricated by Jagger’s sly readings of some of scenarist Jayson Philip Lasker’s witty repartee, Coburn delivers the full juice as the larger-than-life Tobias, an aged literary lion whose sexual function has recently broken down along with the rest of his body and who thinks nothing of bursting in on his wife’s sack sessions with Byron to make sure everything’s going all right. Tobias just wants Andrea to be happy, but also takes advantage of Byron’s expertise as a wordsmith, seeking his advice on an epic novel about ancient Rome that Tobias has been working on for years.
When Byron informs the old master that his book stinks, Tobias unexpectedly counters with the proposal that the young man collaborate with him. In the script’s most far-fetched gambit, Byron convinces Tobias to drop the Roman idea altogether and take up the migrant workers subject instead; with Tobias clearly cut from the Hemingway-Jones-Mailer cloth, it would be impossible to swallow his submission to the will of another writer were not the joke on Byron in the end, which it is.
Although Byron has a legitimate excuse for being absent for long stretches, his wife eventually learns the truth and gives him the heave-ho. For her part, Andrea, whose true feelings for her lover have always remained opaque, has a nasty surprise for him after Tobias finally kicks the bucket. Resolution to the yarn’s myriad dilemmas is rather softly conventional.
In a film with two supposedly talented writers front and center, it’s a pleasure to luxuriate in a script with dialogue that is droll and pointed throughout. It’s only in some of the plot points and motivations that things don’t entirely compute, notably in regard to Byron’s relatively late blooming literary career, but also in relation to the underdetailed emotional/psychological impact his deceit has on him.
After some fine documentary work and a patchy track record through four previous narrative features, director George Hickenlooper does his most sustained and controlled work in fiction here, finding humor throughout and eliciting fine turns from his eclectic cast. Garcia, who also co-produced, is effective as the well-intentioned man who both benefits from and pays the price for his ethical slipperiness. Jagger, in addition to delivering his bon mots with aplomb, adds some unexpectedly human and melancholy notes to his role of an aging pimp and roue who dreams, at long last, of settling down with a longtime client, played with invigorating relish by Anjelica Huston.
Coburn, who seems to be channeling Anjelica’s father at times, is an absolute delight as he effortlessly dominates every scene he’s in. Williams certainly has “the face of an angel” that Luther promises to Byron, although her role remains relatively one-dimensional, as does Margulies’ as Byron’s wife. Ex-rocker Michael des Barres has some nice moments as a veteran gigolo in Luther’s employ.
Pic was shot at well-chosen L.A.-area locations; its solid production values are enhanced by fine lensing by Kramer Morgenthau and Franckie Diago’s atmospheric production design. Anthony Marinelli’s score is also a plus.