There’s an awful lot of scenery-chewing going on in “The Last Station,” a movie about Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s final days. But no one owns this movie like Paul Giamatti’s glorious handlebar mustache. Thick and bushy, with the ends teased at sharp angles, it’s all anyone can focus on when Giamatti (“Sideways”) is onscreen. This wonderful facial eccentricity evokes an image closer to Snidely Whiplash than Vladimir Chertkov (the real-life Russian writer and Tolstoyan Giamatti is playing), and yet, since the proceedings surrounding the mustache are pitched at a level of cartoonish hysteria, the construction of said mustache feels surprisingly justified.
“The Last Station”
At the Michigan
Sony Pictures Classics
Alas, Chertkov and his upper lip are meant to be enjoyed only as auxiliaries to this story. Writer-director Michael Hoffman (“The Emperor’s Club”), working from the historical novel by Jay Parini, has elected instead to cast James McAvoy (“Wanted”) as the narrative’s fulcrum. McAvoy plays a bland, naïve writer named Valentin Bulgakov, a Tolstoy sycophant who is invited to be the man’s latest secretary and live on the nearby compound populated by the cult-like followers of his writings. He sports a rather drab goatee-type thing that, unfortunately, befits his character all too well.
McAvoy’s chief job is to stare wide-eyed at the domestic squabbles that erupt between Tolstoy and his wife, until it’s his turn to finally think for himself. Yawn. Anyway, the real meat of the story, and the ham acting, is Tolstoy’s love/hate relationship, which actually does occupy both extremes of that spectrum. Both Christopher Plummer (“Up”), as Tolstoy, and Helen Mirren (“The Queen”), as the Countess Sofya, received Oscar nominations for their high-class screaming and lovemaking. Mirren preens and flops about, as per her character, and she’s just charming enough to avoid audience revulsion.
Plummer’s long, thick beard keeps up the high facial hair standards set by Giamatti. Tolstoy’s beard, after all, was the source of his power. Helen Mirren, disappointingly, shows no effort to similarly adorn her visage with some mutton chops — not even a Fu Manchu.
Wait, there’s still a movie to review.
All of the actors are more than adequate in their roles, and the film has a very nice look to it; there are several gorgeous sweeping vistas of the Russian countryside. The problem is we can’t take “The Last Station” seriously as drama because the characters over-emote so much. There’s operatic, and then there’s soap-operatic.
For at least the first half of the movie this doesn’t seem to be a problem, since it’s pitched as a comedy, complete with the most refreshingly awkward virgin-deflowering scene ever committed to film. But around the time we’re supposed to root against Giamatti’s mustache in favor of the crazy-yet-eternal bond the Tolstoys share with each other, the movie loses its mojo. There was never any dramatic weight here, but we’re cheated into thinking we missed it somewhere between the countess’s gaudy suicide attempts.
The greatness of Tolstoy as an author and philosopher is well-established, and those more familiar with the man’s life and writings may glean a bit more interest from watching a dramatization of his end. But then again, the film doesn’t show much respect for the old coot, and that’s not even taking into account all of the British accents these supposed Russians are sporting. Was this really one of the most celebrated writers in the world? A hypocritical horndog who liked making rooster noises in bed with his wife?
If “The Last Station” is to be enjoyed, it’s as a campy fun casualty of the costume drama genre. And if they ever make an Oscar for Best Facial Hair, that will finally be the one Paul Giamatti wins.