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Cinema Signal: Numerous flaws & weaknesses which may be forgiven or ignored but only by a limited audience.

The City of Your Final Destination
by Peter Cameron
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "The City of your Final Destination"

The Merchant Ivory name is synonymous with literary subject matter and English reserve. With few exceptions, the filmography of this brand shows the extent of the company's taste for the written word adapted into screenplays that are uncompromisingly character driven. You don't get high action, effects and barrels of blood here. What you should expect, rather are stories about the moneyed class, romance with obstacles, and performances by actors at the top of their craft. Indeed, casting is one of the most powerful elements of director Ismael Merchant's, producer-director James Ivory's and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's history of success.

Which is not to say their movies are perfect, or always exceptional. They made their mark with "A Room With a View" and scored big with titles such as "Howard's End" and "The Remains of the Day." But their tastes of failure and mediocrity are numerous, as well, including "The Golden Bowl" which was thought good enough to be exhibited in the U.S.

All of which is by way of background on what to expect with their latest opus, a work of such dismal dramatic effect that this 2007 production laid on the shelf for three years before seeing the light of projection. It's also the first film released by them since the untimely death of Mr. Merchant in 2005 shortly after he completed principal photography on "The White Countess." The director's shoes are worn here by Mr. Ivory.

First, I would have to say that the appeal of this relatively modest story is addressed primarily to the calm, unflappable adult viewer. To a fault. And therein lies the problem. Twenty minutes into it I began wondering when the drama was going to begin. You know, that moment when all other concerns cease and you are bound to find out how this is going to play out? That moment arrives tediously, on tenuous feet. Maybe it's a British thing.

The film is adapted by house scribe Jhabvala from the novel of the same name by Peter Cameron, and one suspects it's too great an attempt to capture the literary style and not enough of the cinemtatic. It begins when Iranian-American protagonist Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally) is at a crossroads in his academic studies. The first semester of his fellowship has begun and the project he's been approved for at the University of Colorado, which will provide him financial aid to continue his graduate work, is in trouble.

His plan to write an authorized biography of the deceased Latin American author Jules Gund is thwarted by the arrival of a letter from the writer's three heirs in response to his plea. The great man's widow, Caroline (Laura Linney, "Mystic River"); his young mistress, Arden Langdon (Charlotte Gainsbourg, "21 Grams," "Antichrist"); and Gund's brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins, "The Wolfman") have denied him their authorization.

As it happens, Omar's live-in girlfriend is something of a dominatrix (well, let's bow to the press notes and say "aggresively supportive") who likes to maintain a puppetmaster's control over her men, whose minds are the putty for her molding. She comes up with the excellent idea that Omar must not accept the rejection of his request for authorization, but must go and visit these people on the massive family estate named Ochos Rios (eight rivers) in an isolated region of Uruguay for face to face appeals for reconsideration. Of such derring do, drama might well evolve. And well it would have if Russell Crowe were in the role.

In a rare insistence on his own independence from Deirdre, he takes off solo and shocks the family by the audacity of his unexpected appearance on their doorstep. After meeting Arden's sprightly elevenish daughter Portia, the beautiful young mother intuitively decides that the visitor must be welcomed after such a grueling journey, at least for an overnight. Standoffish Caroline, on the other hand rues that decision and would prefer he be sent back to the train station. Civility wins and, when older brother Adam learns of the houseguest, he shows himself to be the relatively wise elder of the clan.

In a subplot, Adam is involved with his social and sexual partner, Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), a young Japanese man who has the entrepreneureal spirit to want the estate to be put to use and have it pay for itself. This is a better plan than Adam's, who is looking for an accomplice to smuggle his dead wife's diamonds and gold jewelry out of the country for sale abroad.

Of course, Omar's addition to the dynamics between these individuals stirs things up but one wonders when the drama might unfold. The primary tension derives from the developing relationship between Omar and Arden and, in this, Gainsbourg has a quality sufficient to raise the stimulus level considerably. But, as this stimulation is held in a state of anticipation for most of the length of the film, the story suffers from malaise, rambling discourse, and an absence of vitality. Waiting for poor Omar to unshackle himself from his paramour's influence, is like waiting for a glacier to reach a boil.

Moviegoers are likely to be home viewers for this when it hits the bins. Unless, of course, you're anxious to see Gainsbourg's latest work. This is one ravishing lady with a look of sensuality all her own. Older fans might be interested to know that she's the goddaughter of Yul Brynner.

"The City of Your Final Destination" isn't Merchant Ivory's finest hour. It looks great under the hand of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") who gives it the patina of quality.

Ivory does well in capturing the languid life of the idle rich but with too much high-toned taste and an excessive appeal to the intellect as though that's a substitute for raging emotion. Some filmgoers have an appreciate for this, and the patience. I did not.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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