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November 5, 2002

The Man From Elysian Fields: Oh, if I were intelligent

While I fear I'm just grasping at something specious, I think it's worth making a distinction between work that's profound and work that's intelligent. A work of profundity is ultimately a work about ideas, and those ideas are themselves particularly original and insightful. A work of intelligence is more difficult to define. A label like "intelligent" doesn't comment so much on what was said but rather on the manner in which it was said—at a supremely appropriate moment, say, or with a due sense of gravitas. What makes the distinction even more important are the cases in which such labels are erroneously applied. Nothing is more frustrating than false profundity, but generally it's possible to muster an argument that in a movie, book, play, or what-have-you, nothing was actually said, or that what was said was banal. False intelligence is harder to spot. Ultimately, arguments to this end rely not upon ideas but upon presentation, and that comes down to nothing more than a feeling. This discussion is a little overblown, given that I'm trying to make a rather simple point: namely, most so-called intelligent movies (sophisticated being an interchangeable term) are praised merely for producing a certain feeling in the audience. We may not learn anything, but we sure do feel smart watching it. Such a feeling is the easiest thing in the world to manipulate.

I felt this way while watching The Man From Elysian Fields. An oblique riff on the Faust legend, it's a movie that doesn't so much make points as suggest them, as though it doesn't want to offend anyone's sensibilities by passing judgment on the situation of its protagonist. Played by Andy Garcia, that protagonist is a novelist, living with his wife and infant son in Pasadena. He's not much of a novelist, apparently, or at least not very well-known as a novelist, given that the movie's first scene shows him attempting to cajole a fellow bookstore customer into buying a copy of his first work from the remainder table. His book has the dreadful title of Hitler's Child, and its central conceit—it should be obvious—was that Hitler, unbeknownst to the Allies, had a child. Like I said, he's probably not much of a novelist, although given that most novelists are bad novelists, such a character may be a fitting subject for a movie. But, no, we're not even allowed to reach that conclusion, because despite a later scene in which his editor viciously rejects his latest manuscript, we're also given a scene in which his wife, played by Juliana Margulies, repeats a review from The New York Times comparing Hitler's Child to the work of Hemingway. So: talented but unappreciated, and I take note of the fact that this movie believes that the plot of Hitler's Child may actually produce a good book.

Of course, being a talented but unappreciated novelist has never been a particularly lucrative vocation. For a man living with a wife and infant son in southern California, however, it's financial suicide. Even though his wife is super-humanly supportive of his stalled career, our writer realizes after his manuscript's rejection that he has to find some way to support his family. He tries to go back to his old job as an advertising copywriter, but, in a plot trick meant to further his desperation, he apparently quit that job in a manner that made returning impossible. He tries to turn to family members for a loan, but, in yet another plot point meant to further his desperation, he's saddled with a bullying father-in-law who doesn't consider a talented but unappreciated novelist, no matter how glowing his reviews may be, to be good enough for his daughter.

By this point in the movie it's easy to share the protagonist's desperation. There are, after all, only a finite number of times in which we can see someone brutally cut down before we begin to root for him. That's why the arrival of the shady entrepreneur, who runs the office just down the hall from the novelist's, comes as something of a relief. That his business is something of a mystery, that he refuses to reveal much about himself, and that he is played by Mick Jagger should all be causes for alarm. Desperation is a master motivator, however, and so our protagonist agrees to join up with Elysian Fields, which turns out to be a high-end escort service with a lengthy clientele of rich, lonely women in the Los Angeles area.

While this may be a deal with the devil, it's not yet Faustian. No, that part of the story doesn't occur until our novelist has his first client: a young woman, played by Olivia Williams, married to a much older, terminally ill writer, played by James Coburn. It just so happens that Coburn's novelist is the idol of Garcia's novelist, and, in a series of plot developments I fear I don't have the space to reveal, the two novelists are soon working together, creating a book that will supposedly contribute to the lasting fame of both men.

This, apparently, is the Faustian bargain: you can work with your idol on his last novel, but you must conceal from your wife the fact that you only earned such an honor because of your work with an escort service; she would be understandably upset. We now have the setup for a classical morality play, complete with the lesson that fame and fortune are only worthy goals when they are honestly achieved, with the support and approval of loved ones. The trouble, of course, is that to make this point the movie would have to force our character into a position in which he willingly abandons fame and fortune, realizing the depravity to which he has stooped. There are two problems with such a strategy: first, having used a serious of elaborate plot devices to setup the dilemma, screenwriter Philip Jayson Lasker is unwilling to leave the resolution of his movie to such pedestrian elements as characterization. Second, Lasker and director George Hickenlooper seem unwilling to make pronouncements about what would be right or wrong in such a scenario. That would mean passing judgment on Jagger's character—which they are decidedly unwilling to do—and perhaps making the protagonist a victim of his own choices rather than simply a number of quirks of fate. Apparently they cannot stomach such commitments.

I have to admit that the movie is not nearly so ludicrous on screen as it looks on page. The whole thing is paced in such a way that absurd developments take on a kind of logic of their own, and the actors approach the material with such seriousness that it becomes realistic. The Man From Elysian Fields is not a bad movie, just a confused one. Given that the movie begins with characters are so deep into their lives that it doesn't have time for exposition on their backgrounds, needs, or psychology, it plugs in actors whose personas are so easily recognized that they can fill in the blanks. A gruff, world-weary writer? James Coburn. A middle-aged loser? Andy Garcia. A charismatic but amoral tempter? Mick Jagger. Put them in a story with enough plot that no one stops to ask questions, and you have a surefire "intelligent" movie. Unfortunately, things don't always work out as planned.