Sunday, February 2, 2014

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Late Quartet

The Good: Decent mood, Interesting character conflict, Good acting
The Bad: Erratic plotting, Mood gets oppressive at some points.
The Basics: A Late Quartet utilizes an impressive cast in an erratically presented narrative about the dissolution of a quartet of musicians who have been together for twenty-five years.

This morning, news broke early that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died. It was then that I realized that I have actually seen a pretty significant portion of his body of works. So, as I often do when a favorite actor of mine dies – or in the case of watching Havoc (reviewed here!) on the occasion of Anne Hathaway’s marriage – I sat down to watch a film with Philip Seymour Hoffman that I had not yet seen. I chose A Late Quartet and through it, I had a pair of revelations. The pleasant revelation was that, despite having seen a preview for A Late Quartet which made so many of the early scenes in the film feel familiar, A Late Quartet did not make me feel like I was watching any other movie. That is a pretty rare sensation for me. The specific plot of a dissolution of a mature group of adults felt, despite the thematic pressure to make a depressing film, remarkably fresh.

The other revelation for me was from Philip Seymour Hoffman. For all of my appreciation of Philip Seymour Hoffman and my appreciation for his extensive range as an actor, A Late Quartet made me realize (with the help of my wife’s observation) that I have absolutely no idea what the casting call for Philip Seymour Hoffman would be. “Frumpy b-lister needed for emotionally deep supporting role, must be able to wear sweatpants. A-list actors need not apply.” ? For all his power and range, Philip Seymour Hoffman was seldom challenged or expected to open or carry a film. A Late Quartet, in that way, might well be the quintessential role of his career: the film is about a string quartet and the balance between its members . . . and the imbalance created when one of the members plans to retire.

After twenty-five years together, the musicians in a string quartet find themselves divided on whether or not to play a particularly challenging piece by heart. The cellist, music teacher Peter Mitchell, finds himself during their first rehearsal, out of time with his hands not working as well as they need to. His doctor suspects he has Parkinson’s and he reluctantly informs the other members of the quartet that he will be leaving after the premiere concert of the current season. The perfectionist first violinist, Daniel Lerner, rides Juliette and Robert’s daughter Alexandra pretty hard in their session and Robert uses Peter’s Parkinson’s revelation as an opportunity to share the First Violin chair duties. Daniel rejects the idea of alternating the First Chair position and Juliette tells Daniel that if Peter leaves the quartet, she might be done with the Fugue. When Peter discovers that his handpicked choice to replace him in the Fugue String Quartet is not likely to be released easily from the trio she is in, the Fugue looks like it might fall apart.

In the ensuing collapse of the group, Robert cheats on Juliette with a flamenco dancer and Juliette calls him out on it right away. While Peter courts Nina to replace him, Daniel mentors Alexandra and Robert and Juliette wrestle with the fallout in their marriage. As they work up to their final performance, the members of the Fugue String Quartet reflect upon their lives together and as individuals and begin to question what the last twenty-five years have meant to each of them.

A Late Quartet is essentially a character study featuring five primary characters (the quartet acting as a character in and of itself). The film has more of a meandering quality than the epic The Red Violin (reviewed here!), but it has a similar intensity. While Robert’s interest in Pilar is entirely predictable and not at all frustrating through either its realization or the torsion it causes in the story, Alex’s obvious interest in the much older Daniel is predictable but brought to the forefront in a way that feels fresh. It is refreshing to see a movie where the reticent old man is not interested in (and, in fact, is revolted by) the advance of the woman young enough to be his daughter. So, when Robert implores Daniel to find his passion, that Daniel uses it as an excuse to give in to his repressed desire for Alex is completely disappointing. The only thing that redeems the otherwise insulting scene between Alex and Daniel is that Juliette, smartly, is realistically able to recognize Daniel’s car outside Alex’s apartment when she visits her daughter.

The refreshing aspect of A Late Quartet is that the predictable aspects make way for unpredictable elements. Daniel and Alex sleeping together leads to a particularly brutal and straightforward conversation between Alex and Juliette. While the scene is punctuated with one of the most foreseeable slaps in film history, A Late Quartet is filled with more moments that feel audacious than the ones that insult the viewer with their predictability. Most notably, A Late Quartet features characters who are actually refreshingly honest with one another. A Late Quartet does not hinge on plot revelations following characters doing horrible things; it is all about how the characters react to the way they treat one another. The film feels like a continuum; these characters have been wrestling with issues in their dynamics for years prior, not just during the events of the film.

On the performance front, A Late Quartet is exceptional. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Katherine Keener, and Christopher Walken all give their usual amazing performances. Hoffman is deep and conflicted as Robert, Keener is emotionally intelligent and articulate as Juliette, and Walken is alternately reserved and emotive as Peter. A Late Quartet might be the most significant role I have seen Mark Ivanir in and he is wonderful as Daniel. He has impressive range and the four members of the Quartet all realistically portray musicians in such a credible way that they seem like a perfectly viable and real musical group. Imogen Poots is good in the supporting role of Alex and there is not a poor moment of performance in all of A Late Quartet. Despite the emotional oppressiveness of A Late Quartet and the moments when the film seemed more familiar than challenging its conventions, I found myself wanting to see more with these performers in these roles.

More a celebration of mood and performance than a truly worthwhile story, A Late Quartet is a great way to eulogize the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman; there is abounding talent in the film, but the push over into enduring, undeniable greatness – the faith that the movie is going to resonate – is lacking. There is a passion and specific, worthwhile, clever bits, but it comes together in a way that makes it hard to define and call out, much like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

For other works with Philip Seymour Hoffman, please visit my reviews of:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Master
The Ides Of March
The Invention Of Lying
Charlie Wilson’s War
Mission: Impossible III
Strangers With Candy
Along Came Polly
Cold Mountain
The 25th Hour
Punch-Drunk Love
Almost Famous
State And Main
The Big Lebowski
Boogie Nights
Hard Eight


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Very nice review. Really enjoyed the movie. I will miss seeing more movies from Mr. Hoffman.

    1. Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading! Philip Seymour Hoffman will certainly be missed.

      -W.L. Swarts