'The City of Your Final Destination': A meditation on art and the past

Anthony Hopkins plays a brother with a fondness for cocktails.
Anthony Hopkins plays a brother with a fondness for cocktails.
Posted: June 25, 2010

When we first meet Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), the hapless hero of James Ivory's literate and luminescent - if sometimes lumbering - romantic drama The City of Your Final Destination, he's stuck in a patch of quicksand near his house.

Thus begins a movie that feels as if it should have been a masterpiece. As it is, it's flawed, uneven work but deserves careful viewing.

The image of quicksand, of course, is a not-too-subtle existential metaphor: Omar, an Iranian American Ph.D. student in literature at the University of Kansas, is stuck. His planned thesis, and ticket to a job, is a biography of the late German-Uruguayan writer Jules Gund, but it's dead in the water. Gund's family has turned down Omar's request for authorization.

Omar, a hopeless romantic with little backbone, is crushed. But his controlling, frightfully efficient girlfriend, Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), won't have it. She demands that he fly to Uruguay to confront the trustees.

The quicksand metaphor applies equally to Jules Gund's survivors, who live together on a rambling ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Jules' elder brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins), lives out his days drinking cocktails and making witty remarks, a la Oscar Wilde, to his younger lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada).

He shows Omar his parents' home movies and explains how they fled Hitler's Germany, only to imprison themselves in Uruguay in a hermetically sealed cocoon devoted to preserving memories of the old Europe.

Jules' widow, Caroline (Laura Linney), seems to be in perpetual mourning and jealously guards her memories. A talented painter, she has given up creating original works and merely copies the masters.

Then there's Jules' lover, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Portia (Ambar Mallman), her daughter with Jules.

The place is a zoo, as one observer says.

For all his self-effacing, awkward bumbling about - perhaps because of it - Omar manages to charm Adam and Arden. Slowly, he loosens the chains that have bound Gund's loved ones to his imposing memory.

City, based on the Peter Cameron novel, is at its best a languid, impressionist portrait of how the past - whether personal memories or the sweep of history itself - makes us who we are, but also can imprison us. It raises intelligent questions about the power of art, and it illustrates art's greatest aim and most frequent failure: to capture the essence of a human life.

The cast is superb, especially supporting players Sanada (The Ring, Sunshine) and Lara (Youth Without Youth).

Despite the actors and the fine source material, however, Ivory's piece is far from perfect. The pacing too often veers into the soporific, the dialogue into the sophomoric.

But a flawed picture from Ivory is worth a hundred hits from virtually anyone in Hollywood.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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