CHANGES: Omar Metwally and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in "The City… ('Merchant Ivory )
It's easy to see why the Merchant Ivory team was attracted to " The City of Your Final Destination," a languid literary contemplation on the vagaries of life, love, bee stings and the artistic soul. Just as easy to sense is the missing touch of Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005, nearly a year before the film went into production.
Filled with unrealized possibilities and fraught with flaws, "Final Destination" seems destined to be little more than a footnote in the anthology of extraordinary films to come out of the long creative collaboration between producer Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Like many of the classic Merchant Ivory productions such as "The Remains of the Day" and "A Room With a View," the film exists within a tiny ecosystem of relationships that will change, and be changed by, the entry of a foreign object. In "Final Destination," that outside influence is a University of Kansas English graduate student, Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally).
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article in some instances referred to the character Omar as Oscar.
Based on the Peter Cameron novel, the movie mostly unfolds in Uruguay in 1995 and is concerned with the legacy of the late Jules Gund, a writer of some acclaim and much mystery. Gund has left behind one published novel, an unexplained suicide and a decaying family estate where his brother Adam ( Anthony Hopkins), widow Caroline (Laura Linney), mistress Arden ( Charlotte Gainsbourg), her daughter Portia (Ambar Mallman) and Adam's lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada) continue to live in a necessary detente.
Omar arrives unexpectedly after they refuse permission for the Gund biography he has in mind, triggering a ripple effect that will change everyone in turn, including Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), his girlfriend back home in Kansas.
Jhabvala has streamlined the Cameron novel and done away with many of the characters' eccentricities. There is just the barest mention of the family's defining moment when Jules, Adam and their parents escaped Hitler's Germany with their lives, some family jewels and the gondola that would become the subject of Jules' novel. Instead, she keeps the focus on Omar, whose academic future is hanging in the balance.
He's a tentative sort who has let life do the pushing, so he's new at making things happen. As Omar makes his case for the biography, the film roots around in deeper themes of ambition, artistic failure, privacy, the truth and lies of memory, and, finally, how a celebrity in the family — even a relatively obscure novelist — affects everyone's view of their own successes and failures.
With Omar the primary agent of change, the film is largely dependent on Metwally's performance, and it, unfortunately, wilts in the heat of that Uruguayan summer and the formidable cast around him. The actor, who made his screen debut in Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (2005), never gains his footing; worse still, it feels as if Ivory just left him to flounder.
The old hands, meanwhile, rest easy in their roles, with Hopkins' Adam delightfully draped in wrinkled linen suits and wry observations. Linney is the cucumber cool, unmovable obstacle in Omar's path, wearing the pain of Gund's betrayal like a shawl against the chill. Gainsbourg is as light as a butterfly as Arden, more an innocent lost, and without the darkness that has become the actress' signature. The surprise is Lara as the irritatingly efficient Deirdre, who blows in like an ill wind — a welcome relief that someone has finally stirred things up.
In working with Ivory for the first time, acclaimed cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe ("The Sea Inside" and " Vicky Cristina Barcelona," among others) has given the film a dusty and dry patina, which perfectly suits lives that are so close to being dried up. But it is beauty held at a remove, like a passive-aggressive lover toying with, but never giving in to, emotions.
"The City of Your Final Destination" then finds itself buffeted by the whims rather than the virtues of the Merchant Ivory aesthetic. Editing was delayed while money was sought to finish the movie, but when the filmmakers finally got to it, they made a mess of it. No happy ending in sight.