Where “The Man from Elysian Fields” rises from the level of ordinary to excellent is in the details — specifically, in what director George Hickenlooper smartly chooses not to show us.
There is an old man in it, a gregarious old coot of a novelist played by James Coburn, who is dying. We are spared a deathbed scene, and the scenes of him suffering and wheezing that many lesser films would have felt obligated to show are not present, either.
Two of the principal characters have sex, but it is implied more than shown. Again, we get the idea.
As a young would-be novelist, played by Andy Garcia, writes about migrant workers, we see the vast amount of research he undertakes all in one shot. The camera slowly pans across a desk covered with books whose titles indicate their subject matter, and we understand that he is doing research. That’s it; message conveyed; we move on.
If there were deathbed scenes, or explicit sexuality, or sequences of Andy Garcia conversing breathlessly with his wife about Cesar Chavez, “The Man from Elysian Fields” would quickly become commonplace, the sort of movie that does things by rote. Instead, it strikes me as a literate, respectable film that explores familiar themes in a new way.
Garcia plays Byron Tiller, a Pasadena man whose first novel, a thriller called “Hitler’s Son,” failed to set the literary world on fire. As a result, he cannot find a publisher for his new book, the one about migrant workers. He fears his devoted, intelligent wife Dena (Julianna Margulies) cannot bear to know her husband’s a failure — their version of foreplay is to quote glowing reviews of “Hitler’s Son” to each other — so he tells her the book will be published as planned.
In the meantime, he becomes increasingly desperate to make money to support his family (he has a young son, too). Enter Luther Fox (Mick Jagger), a well-dressed, impossibly thin man whose first name makes you think of Lucifer and whose last name suggests craftiness. This is not a man you would want to strike up a business deal with; the fact that he is played by Mick Jagger makes associations with him seems all the more unwise. But our hero is in dire straits, and what Luther is offering seems reasonable.
Luther runs Elysian Fields, a classy escort service. They provide handsome, charming men, mostly to old ladies who need an arm to lean on at the opera and a companion for dinner. Sex is not necessarily required; Byron hopes it won’t be. Just going out with a woman will involve lying to Dena, but it doesn’t have to mean cheating on her.
His first client is Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams), a gorgeous young woman whose husband is the aforementioned dying novelist, Tobias Alcott, a fraction of whose genius Byron would love to get his hands on. Tobias approves of his wife’s behavior; he knows he isn’t much good to her now and wants her to be happy, even if it means seeing other men. Tobias and Byron become friends. Surely this arrangement cannot end well.
I am impressed with Phillip Jayson Lasker’s script, which allows the characters to be themselves and not just pawns of the plot — that is, the characters and their behavior drive the plot, not the other way around.
Andy Garcia gives Byron a quiet gravity that is very effective. As he becomes increasingly involved with the Alcotts, we get a palpable sense of how it must feel to be in such a predicament, a happy relationship that is nonetheless wrong, a situation that becomes more out-of-control the longer it goes on.
James Coburn, in one of his last film roles, is fantastic as the garrulous old author. A posthumous Oscar nomination might not be amiss — not because he’s dead, but because it’s a great supporting performance, offering the right blend of humor and pathos (which is an apt description of the entire movie, actually).
And in the wreckage of Mick Jagger can be found the remains of a handsome man, the sort of aging lothario you can see running an escort service. He has a couple of scenes with one of his own clients, played by Anjelica Huston, and the emotions he uses are sublime.
Is pain required to write great fiction? Must we always be held accountable for our sins? These are among the questions addressed in this very good, very insightful, very enjoyable film.
A- (1 hr., 46 min.; )