There are pleasures to be had from Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet, opening in limited release today, principally having to do with its treatment of group dynamics battling artistic temperaments. The question is whether those are sufficient to warrant sitting through the rest of it.
Set in the world of professional classical musicians, A Late Quartet considers a famous string quartet comprised of Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir, who have been performing together for 25 years.
But their equilibrium is threatened when Peter (Walken), the group's cellist, is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which will end his career. The choice has to be made -- disband the quartet or replace Peter, who was the linchpin of starting the quartet. But the moment of transition provokes Robert (Hoffman) to step forward and assert that, though he is second violinist, he wants to start playing some leads. When both the first violinist, Daniel (Ivanir), and Juliette (Keener), Robert's wife who is the group's violist, object to the idea, well, that's when Zilberman loses his way.
Though there are discussions about the clash of egos and sacrificing for the greater good, Zilberman instead veers off into soap opera, with Hoffman falling into bed with a dancer, which leads to a marital blow-up with Keener. Ivanir, meanwhile, is the most controlling of the four and also happens to be having an affair with Alexandra (Poots), Hoffman and Keener's aspiring violinist daughter. Oh -- and Hoffman believes that Keener has never loved him with the same enthusiasm that he has loved her.
And so the movie becomes about these mundane interpersonal plots, instead of the artistic struggle. Though Zilberman occasionally circles back to the quartet politics and these players' feelings about their music, the movie puts its focus on the emotional push-pull over the marriage, instead of the partnership.
The acting is outstanding, particularly Walken, in a more reflective and soulful role. Hoffman makes Robert alternately prickly and needy. Keener is long-suffering, but her part isn't written to be much more.
A Late Quartet is a grown-up drama that loses sight of its own strengths. What makes it unique seems to be the very thing it seeks to squash.
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