How is a naive, doctoral candidate in literature, Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), expected to persuade the odd-ball yet formidable heirs of a recently deceased, Uruguayan novelist, Jules Gund, to grant "unanimous authorization" to write his biography, which is required to fulfill a criterion of his fellowship and cement his future as a tenured academic? Omar is up against the author's prickly, frustrated widow Caroline (Laura Linney), elegant but poor, older brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) coupled with his industrious yet romantic Japanese lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), and much younger mistress Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mother of their 10-year-old daughter. Omar's ambitious girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara) urges him to fly immediately to Montevideo where he takes a dusty bus ride to the village of Tranquera only to hop on a school bus to "Ocho Rios," Gund's wildly overgrown and agriculturally underutilized estate where this unusual, extended family resides in two rundown mansions.
In The City of Your Final Destination, it won't take Omar, an Iranian-American, long to discover he's not at the University of Kansas any more. Will he eat the pork sausage at the local barbecue while lunching with Adam? Where will the kiss with Arden in the gondola shipped from Venice by Jules' long-deceased parents lead? Will the controlling Dierdre allow him to smuggle the secret family jewels out of Uruguay, so Adam can regain the capital to revitalize the estancia?
With so much going on for poor Omar, his pursuit of the authorization to pen Gund's biography seems like a McGuffin--that dramatic device popularized by Alfred Hitchcock--ostensibly driving the film's plot forward but eventually becoming unimportant in the end.
The City of Your Final Destination is director James Ivory's first film since his long-time, producing partner Ismail Merchant (Howard's End, The Remains of the Day, A Room With a View) passed away in 2005 during the filming of The White Countess, which starred the late Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes, and Sanada. As with so many Ivory films, the casting was impressive as well as meaningful. Here, the director has assembled a stellar, international cast: Oscar-winning, Merchant-Ivory veteran Anthony Hopkins (Surviving Picasso, The Lion in Winter); Laura Linney (The Savages, Kinsey); Charlotte Gainsbourg (Jane Eyre, Antichrist, 21 Grams); Hiroyaku Sanada (The Last Samurai, Sunshine); Omar Metwally (Rendition, Munich); and the versatile, Argentine actress Norma Aleandro (La historia oficial, Gaby: A True Story, Cousins) who received an Oscar nomination for Gaby and won best actress awards for La historia oficial from the Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Critics Circle.
While some of the acting is effective, much of the talent is squandered. The script by Ruth Pradwa Jhabvala was adapted from the well-received novel by Peter Cameron, described as having successful dramatic as well as comic elements. The film's emotional tone, however, is mostly one note often lacking in range and providing little comic relief except for the few scenes in which Aleandro appears as Mrs. Van Euwen. The wealthy matron throws lavish parties and hams it up as she is squired around town by younger men making outrageous statements about the Gunds. She even mistakes young Metwally's Omar for Adam's latest "conquest" and refers to him frequently as a "bonbon." Metwally's performance doesn't make much of a splash as an academic, a lover, or "eye candy."
Hopkins is charming and believable as an aging gay man who has a complicated relationship--fraught with insecurities--with the younger, equally talented Sanada. Linney's characterization as a brittle and bored widow is nuanced and commanding against Gainsbourg's natural and understated role as the "lost kitten" brought home to Ocho Rios by Gund. That widow and mistress live in the same house more or less amicably is testimony to both Linney and Gainsbourg's strengths as actresses adapting to counter-intuitive dramatic situations and making them believable.
There are several interesting loose ends, which never get fully explored: the motivation for Jules Gund's suicide; Caroline's wavering about Jules' unfinished manuscript; and Adam and Jules' enigmatic parents who fled Nazi Germany, settled in Uruguay, and never trusted a living soul again--a neurosis that is passed down and seeps into the relationships of both sons. The film's major theme --the conflict between giving into fear and isolation vs. risk-taking and establishing intimacy--doesn't come across boldly enough.
The City of Your Final Destination is far from perfect, but at least attempts to appeal to a mature audience by adapting an interesting piece of literature for the screen, which continues the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala tradition. Some of the script's elements come together in the end. Without giving away too many details, suffice it to say that some characters change partners, while one couple stays together; several remain in Tranqueria, while others end up in New York, the city that Ivory and Jhabvala call home and where the film opens on April 16.