"We tend to the wounds of lonely women in need of emotional, as well as
Masculine desperation is rapidly evolving into the vogue cinematic theme of the new millennium. Such stylistically diverse international films as America's John Q, China's Happy Times, France's Time Out (L'Emploi du Temps), and England's The Full Monty examine from differing perspectives the depths to which men will sink in order when faced with the ultimate cultural emasculation—the lack of gainful employment. (Yes, I'm aware that The Full Monty was made during the waning years of the previous millennium. Never let the facts interfere with a good Opening Statement.)
Described in some quarters as "a romantic film noir," The Man From Elysian Fields continues this trend in a new, yet in some ways eerily familiar, direction. Stylish, surprising, and boasting a stellar collection of acting talent, director George Hickenlooper's mid-life crisis morality play is at turns funny and cynical, wistful and ironic, charming and heartbreakingly cruel.
Facts of the Case
"I don't know why they call them 'outstanding checks,' as if not being paid is somehow a good thing."
Look up "starving author" in your Encarta, and up pops a photo of Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia, Ocean's Eleven, Confidence). His debut novel Hitler's Child garnered a smattering of critical acclaim but flopped in the bookstores, where it now gathers dust on the "Marked Way Down For Quick Unloading" table. His editor at Little, Brown (Xander Berkeley, the ill-fated bureaucrat who took a mushroom cloud for the team on TV's 24) won't touch Byron's sophomore creation—a sociopolitical drama about the plight of migrant farm workers—with asbestos mitts and barbecue tongs. Byron's long-suffering wife Dena (Julianna Margulies, Ghost Ship, TV's ER) is ready to ask for a loan from her millionaire contractor father Edward (veteran character actor Richard Bradford), who despises Byron as an incompetent slacker. Edward would sooner see Dena divorce Byron than lend them money to keep their family afloat.
"This business you're in—doesn't it make you a little bit
Day after day, Byron closets himself away in his cramped office in a seedy low-rent building, desperately trying to catch literary lightning in a bottle. From time to time, he exchanges greetings with the slickly-dressed men who come and go from another suite down the hall, whose frosted glass door bears the legend Elysian Fields. One day, Byron encounters in the downstairs bar the owner of the mysterious office, a natty, serpentine Englishman named Luther Fox (Mick Jagger—if I have to explain to you who he is, you're too young to see this movie). Elysian Fields, Luther calmly explains, is an escort service, catering to an exclusive clientele of prosperous and randy society matrons. Luther may just have a place in his operation for a handsome, erudite fellow like Byron.
"If we can't provide true love, at least we can provide symmetry."
Byron resists Luther's offer at first, but the bills keep piling up. Before long, Byron has his own nameplated dressing stall in the Elysian Fields back room, with a rack of designer suits, a Bvlgari wristwatch, and his first client: Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams, The Sixth Sense, Rushmore), the fetching young wife of triple-Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tobias Alcott (the late James Coburn, in one of his final film roles), the man Byron idolizes. As it happens, Alcott—crippled by diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and a host of other ailments—approves his wife's purchase of Byron's services as a harmless and necessary outlet, and even takes a shine to the younger man when he learns that Byron, too, is a novelist.
"It's an honor to meet you, sir."
The evolution of the relationships between Byron and his wife, his client, and his newfound mentor wreak changes to his life that will leave the reluctant gigolo a far different man than when he began.
Given the dicey subject matter—a happily married man with a loving wife and child becomes a male prostitute—The Man From Elysian Fields could have gone grotesquely wrong in any of a dozen ways. Add the compound problems of tight budget and compromised schedule (filming had to be completed in a scant 28 days, because that's when the money would run out), and it's a wonder the film turned out to be anything at all. Director George Hickenlooper, best known for his Emmy-winning documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now), navigates the tricky material with an adroit hand, maximizing his limited resources to craft a subtle drama as compelling as anything mainstream, mega-budget Hollywood could produce.
The savvy script by Philip Jayson Lasker (whose previous screenwriting credits are limited to two stints penning sitcoms) skirts most of the potential potholes by allowing the characters to behave like intelligent—if not always moral or honorable—adults. Lasker's characters do many things you and I might never do, but at least they do them in ways and for reasons that make sense in the context of the story. According to the audio commentary, Hickenlooper tightened what was originally a far more steamy and graphic script by moving most of the overt sexuality off-camera. For example, we briefly hear Byron and Andrea in the heat of passion, but we aren't forced to watch them (we see them in bed together a few times, but always interrupting—not during—The Act). Because we don't witness the mechanics of Byron's infidelity to his wife, we more easily retain the illusion that it's a job, not an adventure.
Lasker excels in putting delicious, memorable dialogue into the mouths of his characters. Their words are ironic, tragic, and often quite humorous, but no one says anything stupid except when it serves the development of his or her character. Lasker has an almost Mamet-like ear for how people—and not just any people, but the particular people he has imagined—form their thoughts into words. The rhythms are different from Mamet's and don't require the same verbal gymnastics on the part of the actors, but—as is often true of Mamet's work—I found myself repeating lines from the film for days after seeing it.
The first-rate cast Hickenlooper convened performs with uniform brilliance. In the hands of the wrong actors, any of these characters could have degenerated into stale stereotype or obnoxious caricature. Instead, we're compelled to sustain our interest in these people, even when they're engaging in conduct we would find reprehensible in real life. Andy Garcia, who often comes across as a superficial and bland leading man, gives a note-perfect turn as the hapless Byron. Garcia enables us to perceive not only the talent Byron possesses as a writer, but all of the character flaws that make him a failure in his chosen field despite that talent—when a browser in a bookstore (Rosalind Chao, The Joy Luck Club) opines that Hitler's Child is a particularly offensive subject for a popular novel, we see the naïvéte and defensiveness in Garcia's eyes as he retorts with a pouting "Not necessarily."
In the film's pivotal role, Mick Jagger manages to sublimate his rock-star persona so thoroughly into the enigmatic Luther Fox that I almost forgot it was he playing the role. Jagger infuses his portrayal with a seductive blend of decadence and world-weariness that's simply delightful. He carries off a tender, emotional scene between Luther and a preferred client (Anjelica Huston looking smashing in a nifty cameo) with the grace of a practiced actor—Mick's come a long way since Freejack.
The rest of the major players are equally fine. James Coburn relishes gnawing his last few bites of scenery as the Hemingwayesque Tobias Alcott. Olivia Williams is suitably sensuous and inscrutable as Alcott's trophy wife, torn between devotion and biology. Julianna Margulies, who seems at first all wrong for her character, lends a wholesome firmness to the cuckolded spouse. Watch the smaller roles for a slew of recognizable character actors, including Joe Santos (the cop from The Rockford Files) and Tracey Walter (in yet another of his weaselly bit parts).
The look of the film is rich with texture despite the relatively small budget, thanks to the atmospheric camera work of frequent Hickenlooper collaborator Kramer Morganthau, and the economical set designs of Franckie Diago, who manages to redress more than one set to create a totally new environment. But ultimately, The Man From Elysian Fields succeeds on its sound and feel, more than its appearance. Credit for those successes devolves back to a clever director, the sharply constructed script, and a sterling cast. The story is not deep or challenging, and it's not as weighty as it appears at first glance. But then, it isn't trying to be. The Man From Elysian Fields is just a simple cautionary tale, deftly told and marvelously acted.
Unfortunately, the DVD presentation Columbia TriStar gives The Man From Elysian Fields is neither deft nor marvelous. The anamorphic transfer looks awful, especially given that the film is only a couple of years old. There's a disappointing amount of print damage, and the visuals retain a muddy, grainy quality throughout the feature's run time. Colors appear natural, if somewhat subdued, and contrast seems soft at times. As is typical of Columbia product, a fair dollop of edge enhancement has been applied, though it's less in evidence here—partly due to the dark overall tone of much of the film—than in other recent Columbia releases.
The disc sounds somewhat better than it looks. Dialogue is well-balanced and clear for the most part. The score features a deep, expansive quality, though without much involvement of the outboard speakers. It's about what you'd expect for a quiet dramatic film.
Commentary aficionados should enjoy most of the three-headed chatfest starring director Hickenlooper, writer Lasker, and star Garcia. The trio reaches annoying heights of self-congratulatory backslapping on occasion, but on the whole there's an honest, cheerful camaraderie between the participants. Much of the conversation focuses on the measures employed by Hickenlooper and company to cope with their sparse cash reserves and compressed filming schedule. Everyone says nice things about everyone else. (A lot.)
The key members of the cast receive special attention in static filmographies. The film's theatrical trailer and a series of brief, repetitive TV ads are included, along with additional trailers for the Jagger-backed Enigma and the Adam Sandler-Paul Thomas Anderson partnership Punch-Drunk Love.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite its title, this film has nothing to do with the racetrack that gets knocked over by Brigette Neilsen and company in Beverly Hills Cop II. Just in case you were wondering.
The Man From Elysian Fields is a solid, intriguing drama that—thankfully, given its subject—does not degenerate into a remake of American Gigolo or worse, Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo. Director George Hickenlooper shows greater interest in people than in prurience, and his actors respond with winning performances. Worth seeing for Mick Jagger's deceptively smooth work as a high-ticket pimp, and for a last peek at star quality from the late James Coburn. The film deserved a better transfer, but we'll take what we can get.
The Man From Elysian Fields merits a mere slap on the wrist for misdemeanor solicitation. All charges against the cast and crew are dismissed. Columbia TriStar is sentenced to read aloud from Byron Tiller's abysmal novel about Hitler's baby for its slipshod work on this DVD. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director George Hickenlooper, Screenwriter Philip Jayson Lasker, and Actor Andy Garcia
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