"A Late Quartet" is a lovely film, a window into the cloistered lives of four people whose unequivocal commitment to music, to their Fugue, allows them to create a transcendent synergy, quite unlike anything else in the human experience.
Set in a rarefied slice of Manhattan, the film introduces each of the four gifted people who have been together for almost 25 years, practicing, recording, performing worldwide — a lifelong pursuit that it is all but impossible to imagine. They are separate and yet they are one, playing music that has come to them across centuries.
Life, however, unexpectedly begins to intrude when the Fugue's cellist, Peter (Christopher Walken), informs the group that he must retire. He has early Parkinson's disease and will eventually be unable to play. His announcement unhinges the quartet's long sustained harmony, a harmony created with the same restrained and committed effort that the group has devoted to their music.
Playing for Keeps
Peter further complicates his departure by insisting that the Fugue play the celebrated Quartet in C sharp minor (Opus 131), a physically demanding piece, comprising seven movements, played without a break, lasting 40 minutes, allowing the musicians no time to retune. Peter comments to his music class, "What are you supposed to do? Stop? Or continuously adjust to each other up to the end, even if we're out of tune?" And therein is the essence of the film, for while the narrative is about a gifted group of musicians, it's also embedded with a very personal subtext.
As it turns out, "A Late Quartet" is a character-driven drama, a compelling examination of four remarkable people who fail to impose the discipline of their music on their own lives, allowing themselves no time to retune.
The metaphor of life as music and music as life is not subtle, but it is appealing and effective and the performances by the four actors, who form their own thespian quartet, are remarkable.
Walken, surprisingly, plays against type, giving a nuanced, gentle performance as the emotional anchor of the Fugue. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, as always, superb — vulnerable and emotive and constantly off balance. If you are not aware of Catherine Keener by name or performance, she is an astonishing actress whose manner, posture and stare convey pages of dialogue. Mark Ivanir is perfect as the controlling, dispassionate, technically accomplished violinist who refuses to yield and then contributes to the damage done to the fragile quartet.
Whether classical music resonates or not, no matter, this is a special film. Of course, it's melodramatic (how else to create the contrasts), but also so nicely constructed with layers and layers of lyrical music that act as counterpoints to the refined and very human mayhem that begins to intrude from all sides.
"Playing for Keeps"
"Playing for Keeps" disappoints. The producers and actors must have known that the dialogue and the story were without substance. And what is billed as a romantic comedy is, in reality, not comedic, and it's dramatic moments prove shallow and without purpose.
Clearly, the film had a solid budget, an ensemble of A-list actors, and yet the result is silly and lazy.
Begin with George (Gerard Butler), the stereotypical retired jock: a brogue-heavy Scot, a world-class soccer player who was, briefly, rich. Now he's not. He was once married to Stacie (Jessica Biel), and now isn't. He also has a son, 9-year-old Lewis (Noah Lomax), with whom he'd like to reconnect, hence his presence in suburban Virginia where's he's looking to find a spot with the local TV station as a sportscaster.
He gets roped into coaching his son's soccer team. For reasons that are never fully explained, this inspires all the single (or not so single) soccer moms to go libidinous and hit on him with a desperate abandon. Like George, they're stereotyped, their roles — played by the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman and Judy Greer — demeaning, one-dimensional and almost laughable. Dennis Quaid, not to be outdone, portrays a manic, rich, over-the-top soccer dad who's also a philanderer. His is a dumb, thankless role.
What is puzzling is that the film was released during the fall, a time when audiences are expecting films with style and depth. "Playing for Keeps" has neither.