Director of Casino Jack, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the original short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade, Emmy winner for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse…as is often said, the list goes on. October of 2010 saw the passing of George Hickenlooper, and this review of one of his most complex and thoughtful films is my year-end tribute to a writer/director that left us quite a bit too soon.
THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS (2001)
Most dramatic movies about writers usually, let’s be honest, suck. (One that doesn’t is mentioned in the next paragraph. Perhaps you, dear reader, can comment upon some others and set me straight.) The rub here is that it is hard to get people on board for the plight of a struggling writer when it is treated dramatically (Throw Momma From the Train is another story altogether). We all have lives to lead, and some poor schnook who can’t hold down a real job and agonizes over formulating the proper sentence just doesn’t seem like anyone we can get behind.
The trick, then, if one is dead-set on exploring this territory, is to make the tale as universal as possible by weaving the writer’s whiny little plight into a more complex exploration of human need; and if it all comes unexpectedly full circle to illuminate what a writer’s life truly is, so much the better. And it is quite a bit better in The Man From Elysian Fields.
Director George Hickenlooper shows a very assured hand in knowing what he’s got on his hands with this material and this accounts for the film’s neo-noir effectiveness. This is noir homage not so much in the Double Indemnity or Out of the Past vein, but more akin to Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, the 1950 Humphrey Bogart vehicle about an embittered writer caught up in something that threatens to consume him. The script for Elysian Fields came seemingly out of nowhere from Phillip Jayson Lasker, a writer and producer of sitcoms like The Golden Girls who clearly had a lot more inside him than television could contain. And Lasker mines his story of a failed writer drawn into a web of sex and cynicism for all the Lonely Place vibe it can muster.
Andy Garcia plays Byron Tiller, a happily-married novelist trying to help raise a toddler son on the nothing he has been making since his first novel (a ‘what if Hitler never died’ scenario) quickly hit the remainder bins. The film’s perfect but butt-clenchingly awkward opening scene shows Byron prodding a bookstore customer to buy his novel, unaware that she throws it right back in the bin after he autographs it. Yes, the film is already telling us, we’re going to get messy.
Byron’s wife Dena (a lovely, genuine performance by Julianna Margulies) is happy with the way things are, but Byron is feeling the pressure. After a series of job-search setbacks, Byron agrees to a meeting with the mercurial Luther Fox (Mick Jagger) who has an office next to Byron’s and, we find out in short order, runs an escort service. Against his better judgment, Byron dons a tux and takes out society girl Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams in an ice princess role to die for), who is, perhaps not so coincidentally, married to a much older, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of the same surname.
Byron knows and respects Alcott (James Coburn, just great as an eccentric, cantankerous dying man), so when it is suggested that he help him rewrite the great man’s final novel, our struggling writer is over the moon—not to mention keeping the bizarre sexual dynamic at the Alcott household (Byron services Andrea since the impotent Alcott cannot) a secret from his wife.
Within the layers of deception in the plot are the themes of the deceptions we each of us engage in with ourselves; the way that fame and love can corrupt and exclude the human in us, and how giving up on a need for companionship in service of enacting one’s bleak world view can leave a gaping hollow in one’s heart. Hickenlooper makes use of some very clever overlapping dialogue as both a bridge between scenes and a way to connect the characters symbolically, but for the most part he directs in a straightforward style, letting the outstanding cast move the story along with their subtle performances, which build to a minor revelation that becomes more huge as we contemplate how the film had been letting it unfold right under our noses.
Garcia underplays, perhaps almost to a fault, but he really lets us see a man holding in the indignities of a lifetime of coming in third. And Jagger, who also narrates (you’ll find out why when you see it), is quite simply wonderful as Luther, carrying his pseudo-refinement like a shield while he shoves his own pain further and further down, especially during a sad little scene with the ever-terrific Angelica Huston, who plays a long time client he hopes will become something more.
Jagger’s sadness anchors the entire film: it is the Best Supporting Actor performance that never was. Another rock and roller, Michael Des Barres, also stacks up some serious screen cred as longtime Elysian Fields employee Nigel, whose frank commentary on the drudgery of whoring is priceless, and who delivers the film’s signature line about fucking being the last resort for a man who feels impotent.
While ultimately not a totally perfect film, and one that has too many endings (one gets the sense there might have been some pressure to add a conclusion that could be construed as somewhat happy), The Man From Elysian Fields is certainly a great film, and a rare find. It is made by smart people and acted by an inspired ensemble who, ironically given the subject matter, were clearly drawn to the work of an excellent writer.
Read more reviews of the Best Films You’ve Never Seen here.