Philip Seymour Hoffman and company’s string quartet hits a bum note.
DIRECTED BY YARON ZILBERMAN
Philip Seymour Hoffman can brighten any movie’s prospects, and A Late Quartet, a stiff melodrama about an internationally lauded string quartet thrown into crisis when founder and cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) develops Parkinson’s, seems designed to prove it. Forced by a jogging buddy to explain his role as perpetual second banana to lead violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), Hoffman’s enterprising musician, Robert, says, with a huff of pride, “I pull it all together; that’s my job.” Does he ever: genteel and near indecipherable to anyone who won’t catch its Beethoven trivia (those who do will probably find it condescending), the film coasts on Hoffman’s considerable talent, livened somewhat by strong supporting work by Catherine Keener and Imogen Poots, but otherwise at the mercy of the second violinist.
Peter’s impending retirement is a threat to the quartet’s existence in more ways than one, exposing deep rifts and hurt feelings that have been patched over for decades. As a visual storyteller, Yaron Zilberman is competent at best, leaning far too heavily on the music and on the pedantic explanations of it from dueling academics Daniel (the mean one, who sleeps with his students) and Peter (the nice one, who grows young talent). When Zilberman the co-screenwriter gets out of his own way as a director, though, he gets some fine work out of his cast, who are as responsive to one another as a quartet should be. There’s also surprising heft to Poots’s portrayal of Hoffman and Keener’s daughter as a temperamental artist groomed to be vain by years of absent parenting and expensive music lessons. Surprisingly, the weak link in both the quartet and the cast is Walken, who’s very moving when he faces the changes that are happening to his body, but tonally all over the place, as if he’s been left to direct himself. “I am sick! Of the bunch of you!” he shouts at his fellow players late in the film, in his trademark staccato sentence-mangling—and you can’t really blame him for being frustrated.