The Man from Elysian Fields

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by George Hickenlooper
Screenplay by Phillip Jayson Lasker
With Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams, James Coburn, Anjelica Huston and Michael Des Barres

Rated R, 106 minutes. Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films

There's a fun satire of writers, literary ambition and the publishing industry folded in among the stylish but rather dull film The Man from Elysian Fields. For those willing to sift through the layers, rewards include a few excellent performances (James Coburn and Anjelica Huston, no surprise, and Mick Jagger, surprise!). Elysian Fields also boasts strong visuals: there's a real sense of how different the atmosphere can be in the home of a fabulously rich person and a struggling, not-quite-poor one; credit to director George Hickenlooper and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.

The film's story concerns Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia), whose first novel has rocketed to the remainder bin in record time. Struggling to support his family (loving, supportive, sexy wife Julianna Margulies and a toddler-age son named Nathaniel Hawthorne Tiller - trés literary), he works his way down, or sideways, to male escort, working for the Elysian Fields agency.

Now, a lot of writers consider themselves whores of one kind or another (I know I've felt like a working girl on more than one occasion), but really, there had to have been a few more job options open to an able-bodied guy. Of course, Tiller is himself being seduced: first by high-cheekboned, highly amused Luther Fox (Jagger), who runs Elysian Fields, and then by his first client (lovely Olivia Williams). She plays the young wife of immensely famous, multiple-Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Tobias Alcott (Coburn, in full Norman Mailer-Ernest Hemingway roar).

Tiller quickly moves from servicing Alcott's wife - with the husband's knowledge and bemused approval, by the way - to, in effect, servicing Alcott himself: criticizing, editing and eventually rewriting Alcott's book. High-priced gigolo becomes high-priced ghostwriter, and the irony is that the latter proves much harder on Tiller's soul, and his marriage, than the former.

We're never really told whether Tiller's book is any good, or whether he's actually a good writer or a lucky hack. Part of the funny/sad aspect of Elysian Fields is that in some sense it doesn't matter: it's all about the packaging.

The film itself feels overstuffed without really being filling, despite the fun of the performances of Coburn, Jagger, and Michael Des Barres as a world-weary, acid-tongued fellow gigolo. The threat to Tiller's marriage from his new job(s) takes up a good chunk of film time, but despite Julianna Margulies' fine work as his wife, there really doesn't seem to be all that much at stake. In fact, the film is fairly dismissive of most of its females, treating them only slightly better than the rich-bitch clients who use the Elysian Fields agency.

Another issue is the blank at the center of the screen in the person of Andy Garcia. Here's somebody that has had the bad career luck to share screen time with Dustin Hoffman in full bag-lady, focus-sucking mode (Hero), as well as with actors like George Clooney and Julia Roberts, who make even preposterous situations look effortless (Ocean's Eleven). Hell, he was even out-acted by that mop of blond ringlets Meg Ryan (When A Man Loves a Woman). His underplaying works nicely against Coburn's full-throttle hamminess and Jagger's silky ennui, but he's really too dull to carry off the rest of the story. Coburn's recent passing makes his appearance here unintentionally even more moving - he was giving his all in what turned out to be his final role, that of a dying man.

Elysian Fields is far from terrible, but it's ultimately more about the surfaces than the depths of a writer's soul or the torment of a failed marriage. Those surfaces - especially the different kinds of frustration endured by Jagger's and Coburn's characters - are interesting, but there's not enough of them, and too much of Garcia's unassuming blandness.

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