Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Everybody get off here

As best I can tell, novelist James Parini and film writer-director Michael Hoffman intended The Last Station (2009) to be an investigation of how people maintain long and often difficult marriages. It is meant to be a paean to enduring love. Unfortunately it is as packed with useless clutter as a 19th-century dacha which cloud the virtues of the project.

First, they confuse the audience by casting James McAvoy to play the same role he played in The Last King of Scotland, goggle-eyed witness to the eccentricities of the celebrated. In order to give him an actual role, they concoct a 20th-century woman for him to fall in love with, then whisk her offstage, failing to disguise what an empty story line she represents. Then Hoffman cast, in the place of two thoughtful complicated people, two of the biggest theatrical hambones on the planet. Mind you, I think they are wonderful actors, but subtle they ain't.

Christopher Plummer plays Tolstoy as if he were looking for a proscenium to climb and some scenery to chew on, and Helen Mirren's character alternates between being an overprivileged whiner, an elderly paranoid crackpot, and a sex-crazed lady of a certain age who thinks she's still 16, especially when she jumps in the lake because she's not getting enough attention. Moreover, Tolstoy does not appear to be a great novelist but an old-time barnstorming actor, and the Countess was his manager. The Tolstoyans thus come off not as ascetics but groupies. The fine and often subtle Paul Giammati has been called upon to make a grumpy infant face and pound his fist on the table a lot. The whole thing looks as if the cast had slipped from the director's control, which, given his mediocre track record (Restoration, One Fine Day and the worst version of Midsummer's Night Dream on film, and that includes the one with Mickey Rooney).

The one commendable aspect is the physical production, largely due to being so low budget, which forced shooting in East Germany, and the use of pre-existing theater costumes rather than new built. Everything looks a bit lived-in, as is right and proper.

The final encounter, the title event of the piece, is expressly designed to short-circuit dramatic confrontation. This famous man decides to run away until he gets sick; his momentarily-estranged wife follows, and do they have a tender reconciliation? No, because history must be observed, and Tolstoy was too sick to really talk with his wife or understand much of what was going on. He dies (and oh, by the way, for no good reason, McAvoy's randy girlfriend pops up again to cheer him up).

If they hadn't been stuck with Tolstoy, they might have invented a tempestuous older couple with plenty of sturm and drang in their relationship, and they would have had the freedom to resolve their story any way they liked. Instead, they serve up this tepid porridge slathered over with outrageous overacting, which is the perfect recipe for the middlebrow cultural snob hit.

Too bad, because the theme of maintaining love between two strong people over 50 or 60 years is an excellent subject, and I hope somebody does make a good movie about that some day.

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