A relationship drama for those who know the difference between an arpeggio and an adagio, director Yaron Zilberman’s film charts what happens when the cellist in a string quartet (Christopher Walken) finds out he has Parkinson’s and has to retire.
Not only does the group have to think about hiring someone to replace him, but the announcement seems to break open a dam of repressed emotions that threaten to tear the ensemble apart.
Second violin Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) soon decides he wants to move up to the first chair and share it with long-time first violin Daniel (Mark Ivanir) – who thinks it’s a really bad idea. Robert also concludes that the woman he’s been jogging with in Central Park (Liraz Charhi), who works as a flamenco dancer in a New York nightclub, is game for some hot between-the-sheets action, so he begins an affair. Robert’s wife and quartet partner Juliette (Catherine Keener) not only finds out about the hanky-panky, but has to deal with daughter Alexandra’s (Imogen Poots) recriminations about Juliette’s itinerant lifestyle, which has kept her on the road seven months of the year. And to top it all off, Alexandra and Daniel decide to have an affair.
That’s enough sturm und drang for about three seasons of ‘The Good Wife,’ and that’s exactly where the film goes off the tracks. Setting this kind of lurid material (co-written by Durham native Seth Grossman) in the high-culture world of classical music might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it comes off as overdone, hysterical and ultimately a bit boring. We’ve seen these situations, with all their screaming matches and recriminations, before – many, many times. Just because this is centered on a group rehearsing Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet doesn’t make it any more edifying or interesting. And the film’s corny, rather maudlin ending doesn’t help matters.
That’s a shame, because the cast is top-notch, and tears into the material as if it were worthy of their talents. Which it’s not.
But if nothing else, “A Late Quartet” gives Christopher Walken a rather unexpected showcase. Given the actor’s eccentric line readings and the many bizarre characters he’s played over the years, you’d think he’d be the last person someone would cast as a cultured classical musician. Yet Walken is not only excellent in the role, but he’s given the film’s best scene, in which he tells a class of students about how as a young artist he met the legendary cellist Pablo Casals. It’s moving and funny at the same time – just about everything this film is not.