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By The Book

film_CityFDstill1Fine acting shines in an impeccable, but bloodless literary adaptation of ‘City of Your Final Destination'
Social upheaval, exile, literary reputation, academic politics, eccentric lifestyles of the semi-rich and infamous, celebrity and its unsavory underbelly—all are under consideration in The City Of Your Final Destination. Beneath this somewhat lugubrious title (based on the Peter Cameron novel) is a most decorous and well-behaved literary adaption, a bit precious at times in its novelistic symmetry and philosophical debates, but entertaining and well-acted—particularly in a showpiece performance by the marvelous Laura Linney.

This is the first film to come out under the vernerable Merchant Ivory imprimatur since the death in 2005 of producer Ismail Merchant. But director James Ivory is once again at the helm, in collaboration with his longtime scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Together, they bring their deft, classical touch to Cameron's post-modern, multicultural story of youth, experience, identity and self-discovery.

Omar Razgahi (Omar Metwally), the thoroughly Americanized son of Iranian immigrants, is a graduate student at a midwestern university. He's landed a grant to write an authorized biography of a deceased author named Jules Gund, whose reputation rests on a single cult novel. It will be the launching of Omar's own literary and academic career—except that Gund's surviving relatives have just denied him their authorization.

Egged on by his steely, undauntable girlfriend, Deirdre (the excellent Alexandra Maria Lara)—who believes he has a "subconscious drive" to fail—and longing to prove to her and himself that he's got the right stuff, Omar travels to Uruguay hoping to persuade the Gunds to approve his project. Arriving uninvited and unannounced at the Gund family compound in remote Ocho Rios, the eager, if naïve, young scholar is grudgingly taken into the household for a few days, where he struggles to sort out the tangled family relationships, agendas, and desires that will determine his own future.

It's one of those unconventional households often found in novels about bohemian artistes. Jules Gund's caustic and imperious American widow, Caroline (Linney), lives in the main house with Jules' last mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a waifish, sweet-natured young Englishwoman, along with Arden's little daughter by Jules. Caroline, a once-promising New York artist now buried in the jungle painting copies of Rennaissance angels, is the most opposed to baring family history in a biography, and it's not hard for her to boss around the obliging Arden to her point of view.

Surviving family patriarch Adam (Anthony Hopkins), Jules' dapper and courtly older brother, lives across the compound in a house he shares with Pete (the always versatile Hiroyuki Sanada), his Japanese-born longtime companion. It's energetic Pete who keeps the estate up and running; although he's much younger than Adam, they've been together 25 years. Genial Adam is disposed to approve of Omar's biography, although his official authorization comes with a condition for Omar that involves valuable heirloom jewelry smuggled into the country when the Gund brothers' German parents fled Hitler's Germany during World War II. Adam also drops enticing hints that Jules left an unfinished second manuscript behind, but committed suicide when he reached a "psychological impasse" he couldn't break through.

There's a lot of talk in this movie about art and passion, genius and folly, and the way passive types surrender to dominaton by forceful personalities with "more character" before they even know who they are. Everyone in the story is some sort of expatriate fish out of water, except for the neighborhood diva (played by the great Argentine actress Norma Aleandro), who travels around in a posse of pretty men, providing lots of exposition. But it's all pretty much, well, by-the-book, with characters more effective as thematic ideas (callow youth, hijacked innocence, frustrated creativity) than real people, and the financial means at hand to make everyone's dreams come true.

film_city_of_your_final_destinationStill, all the acting is persuasive, and Linney turns in a gem of a performance; she grows Caroline from seemingly uptight Ice Queen to wise, compassionate mensch, cracking wise all the way. (When Deirdre arrives after accident-prone Omar has gotten himself into trouble again, Caroline bemoans all these new people, who "only incapacitate themselves and multiply!") She is a pleasure to watch, even in a film more impeccable than heartfelt.

THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION ★★1/2

With Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Omar Metwally. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. From the novel by Peter Cameron. Directed by James Ivory. A Screen Media release. Rated PG-1. 114 minutes.
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