Putting aside that the title evokes images of gory, mousetrap-like deaths in a pastoral setting, James Ivory proves he's lost without his partner Ismail Merchant (who died in 2005). Though it bears many of the duo's trademark fetishes — the tasteful adaptation of a well-heeled novel, sultry cinematography, a wealthy family struggling with quiet dysfunction, Anthony Hopkins — The City of Your Final Destination (based on Peter Cameron's 2002 novel) is a directionless, uninvolving affair that suffers from too much taste and too little drama.
Omar Metwally is Omar, a Ph.D. candidate in literature determined to write a biography of Jules Gund, a mysterious author who wrote a single celebrated book about his German parents' move to Uruguay. Rumor has it that Gund was working on a second novel when he committed suicide, leaving behind his family to tend to his vast South American estate. Denied permission to write the biography by Gund's trio of heirs, Omar is browbeaten by his overbearing girlfriend (Alexandra Maria Lara) to go to Uruguay and convince them to change their minds. Once there, the family allows Omar to stay at their remote home out of courtesy, and the grad student tries to win them over with his puppy-eyed charm. The main obstacle is Gund's icy and seemingly immovable widow Laura Linney. But, wait, her sway over Gund's gay brother (Anthony Hopkins) and young mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is slipping. Omar seizes — well, not exactly seizes — gently prods the others into helping him secure permission ... until a bee sting puts him into a coma and most of his problems are inexplicably resolved. Seriously.
There are some personal family issues that arise, but none warrant mention. This is the kind of film where the story is advanced via conversations over cocktails. There's lots and lots of on-the-nose exposition — characters constantly talk about conflicts, secrets and emotions — but very little action or confrontation. The movie meanders along, lining up events from the novel without any drama or insight. It's as if Ivory and partner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala refused to stoop to anything as uncultured as plot or meaningful characterization. I can only assume Cameron's creations came alive on the page, because here they seem like sketches created to mouth the oral histories of bored and cynical people we don't really care about.
As you might expect from a "Merchant" and Ivory production, the casting is top-notch. With a wink and a small smile, Hopkins is winningly sly and appropriately melancholy. Linney is effectively imperious while Gainsbourg is engaging and cuddly. It's Metwally, however, who fails to impress. He's a lackluster and disconnected protagonist who is given little to do. Lara is equally ineffectual as his controlling girlfriend, being both unlikable and unconvincing. Though Ivory's films are known for their buttoned-up performances, the opening 10 minutes of City are as stiff and amateurish as ever I've seen. Thank goodness we're quickly jetted off to Uruguay, where cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe gives the film a lush, dusty look that'll send you looking for cheap flights on Travelocity.
For anyone who claims that literature is better than cinema, Ivory's film seems to prove an unflattering double negative: the film is, at best, inconsequential and given its reverent treatment, one can only assume that the source material is equally empty.
Opens Friday, July 30, at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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