Never underestimate a grown man’s capacity to throw a hissy fit. And as writer-director Yaron Zilberman (“Watermarks”) proves in “A Late Quartet,” it doesn’t matter if this man is the most brilliant being to ever walk the planet … or Justin Bieber. When the chips are down and those nasty, nasty insults are being thrown around, anyone can flip their shit.
A Late Quartet
At The Michigan
In this case, “anyone” is an elite quartet of classical musicians entering what will be their 25th season together.
The leader of the group is Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken, “Seven Psychopaths”), a wise and dedicated cellist quietly grieving the loss of his wife. Next to Peter sits second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”). Robert is the emotional center of the quartet, bringing with him a colorful passion that adds cohesion to the concerts.
Robert’s wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener, “Being John Malkovich”) plays viola and is the oft-weepy conscience of the group, her lip quivering at the slightest sign of confrontation. The most intriguing character in the film is Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir, “The Adventures of Tintin”), first violinist for the quartet and a man completely obsessed with the idea of achieving technical perfection in music.
The film starts off as an examination of the complex dynamics holding the musicians together, with Zilberman taking time to highlight how these codependent relationships mirror Beethoven’s “Opus 131,” the classic piece to be played at the season’s first concert. It’s a belabored start to a rather forcefully strung movie, but sets the stage well for the moment everything devolves into chaos.
This moment is one of those “Oh-no-she-didn’t” instances that pops up after Peter mournfully announces he is experiencing early signs of Parkinson’s and wishes to retire after his next performance. After the obligatory displays of grief, Robert quickly seizes the opportunity to highlight resentments he has been harboring about exclusively playing second violin — a role some consider less important than the first violinist’s. Ultimately, it all boils down to Robert angrily asking Juliette whether or not she believes he’s truly a better violinist than Daniel.
The response shocks Robert to his very core, setting in motion a series of events involving the most infantile cases of sexual deceit and butt-hurtedness seen all year. But surprisingly, in an almost Jerry Springer-esque sense, the movie is more entertaining because of it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all four of the actors involved deliver some of the most memorable performances of the year.
Every time Seymour Hoffman hurtles shrill insults across the room, it’s guaranteed that everyone in the audience will feel the tendrils of outrage sprouting out of his eyes. On the same token, Walken brings the sense of relevant humanity we’ve come to expect from him. His scenes are sad and, at times, difficult to watch for two reasons. The first is the situation in which his character finds himself — grieving widower beginning to lose his music, the only thing he really cares about anymore. The second reason is the efficacy of Christopher Walken.
The brilliance of the performance becomes clear when Walken capitalizes on the cruel banality of Peter’s plight to forge a connection between mental and physical decline. The association is harrowingly visible in the slightest quiver of Walken’s hands as he lays eyes on his cello — once an object he knew so intimately, it has cruelly turned into a constant reminder of inadequacy.
In addition to the acting, what elevates this film is its dedicated respect for Beethoven’s music, emphatically echoed in every plot development on screen. Somehow, the dignified intricacy of every composition becomes more than just something nice to hear. Somehow, the celebrated melodies put us in the shoes of our beleaguered quartet. And what do we learn? Those cultured intellectuals in Carnegie Hall watch soap operas, too.