April 3, 2003

Under the Radar

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Man From Elysian Fields is the story of a starving writer who becomes a high paid male escort, and, in quick succession, gains the world and loses his soul (before losing the world, in the form of a book deal as well) before finally gaining both back again. Despite the somewhat outlandish premise, the film is pure formula. Man is, however, in some ways a wonderfully original, well written and beautifully acted movie. It contains a startling insight: writers are not whores so much as they are liars. By trade and by nature, they lie to themselves and others. Every character in the movie, save one, is in some way a writer, and they all, save one, lie, none more so than the main character, Byron Tiller ( Andy Garcia).

There are two types of protagonists in films: the great person and the good. Epics and biographies concern themselves with famous leaders. These people are allowed their flaws because of the transcendence of their accomplishments. Conversely, character studies deal with the quotidian drama of regular people, who must, because they are not great, be good. Byron’s problem is that he believes himself to be a great man and a good one and isn’t either. The film’s problem is that it hands him the rewards belonging to both sorts of men (a successful book and a happy family) in the end with him having earned neither of them. Writer Phil Lasker and director George Hickenlooper, otherwise so able in depicting fascinating, sympathetic, damaged characters, fail miserably to make Byron anything other than bland and vaguely offputting. To be sure, they are not helped in1A}ir endeavor by Garcia, whose Byron effects a superior, prissy tone throughout the film, but the problem of Byron as he is written is one common to too many protagonists. Screenwriters fall into the trap of having written the character to be the protagonist or hero, and then forget to give the character anything to do or say to make that heroic designation believable. It’s a classic case of the pitfalls of telling instead of showing. This is why supporting characters are so often better written and more affecting. That’s certainly the case here, as one of the best ensembles I’ve ever seen neatly steals the movie from under Byron’s sanctimonious nose.

James Coburn made his last screen appearance as Pulitzer prize winner Tobias Alcott, and Olivia Williams makes her best one to date as Andrea Alcott. The Alcotts both employ Byron’s talents, Andrea in the usual fashion, and Tobias as a ghost writer. Tobias is dying, and wants nothing more than to finish his last book and for Andrea to be happy. Andrea wants to be loyal to her husband, whom she loves (although it is possible she loves his Pulitzer more). Byron is a double occasion for her loyalty: as he is a professional, it isn’t cheating, and as he is a talented writer, he can help Tobias with his novel, thereby securing her husband’s posthumous reputation. The triangle which develops between Byron and the Alcott’s is one of the movie’s best set pieces. On the surface, it seems to be all about sex (Tobias continually walks in on Andrea and Byron, much to Byron’s discomfort — and no one else’s) but wonderful, arch dialogue and subtle plot development reveal the real conflict to be about art and fame.

The film, however, belongs to its biggest liar and only honest character (yes, they are an item, no, it doesn’t work out). Angelica Huston is brilliantly devoid of mercy and full of wisdom as Jennifer, a society wife who is the only client of Byron’s boss, Luther Fox (Mick Jagger). Her character’s impact is largely derived from Huston’s masterful non-verbal acting. Her total and casual possession of Luther is expressed perfectly in the way she is constantly touching him: straightening his tie, stroking his face. Her physical affection resembles nothing so much as the way people caress their pets. Luther, who does everything else out of watchful calculation, leans into her hand involuntary as a reflex. Pay attention. This is what it looks like when one person owns another. It’s always a risk to cast a non-actor in a leading role. Far more often than a compelling, naturalistic turn like Eminem’s in 8 Mile, you get an embarrassment. Jagger’s performance needs to be preserved and mailed to Madonna, Mariah, Mandy, and Britney with the following note: watch and learn. Jagger locates the key to the character in the way he moves. Luther never walks but he dances. He glides through the movie with one hand in his pocket, arm at an angle, shoulders squared, a dip in his stride in every step. He walks with the intent of seduction. Luther is a very successful business man whose business is creating a facsimile of love. He falls for Jennifer, and can’t counterfeit the truth. Luther has the most acute case of self-deception ever: it’s clear that in his head, he and Huston are a couple. He has his fantasy shattered at the end of every month when he picks up his check, but reconstitutes it in time for their next appointment.

When Luther finally has the truth shown to him in the most painful way possible, he shares it with Byron in the film’s best scene. A lesser film would have an overwrought Luther declaim his tragedy, explicitly state its connection to Byron and otherwise indicate that this is The Point. Hickenlooper has Luther evenly remind Byron not to forget what he is, with such a calm tone that if we hadn’t witnessed a previous scene, we’d have no idea that Luther speaks from a broken heart. Luther and Jennifer fair the best of all the characters because their creators have no expectations of them. They are not needed to direct the plot, so they act as their characters dictate. It is a method which would have made for a great film had it been applied to Byron.

Archived article by Erica Stein