Michael and I were both enticed by the trailer: a conductor/composer named Fred Ballinger played by Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel in a movie other than Smoke (a movie we both love) and a young boy violinist staying at the Swiss vacation spot, who just happens to be practicing a piece the Michael Caine character wrote.
We were both excited to see the movie yesterday. We had to drive another to another town to see one of the limited showings offered by the art theater there (the name of the theater is actually the "Art Theater"). The place was packed with people our ages and older. It was a good sign.
I gave it the benefit of the doubt for the first 20 minutes (it seemed like there were 20 minutes before the film's title appeared). In those few minutes I developed some sympathy for Fred, but I also had the slight suspicion that the film makers didn't know what they should about music and musicians. The guy was the music director at the "philharmonic" for 29 years, and (like all music directors, I suppose) he was a composer.
The Queen of England sends her emissary to the vacation spot to ask Ballinger to come out of retirement and conduct a performance of his "Simple Songs." She also wants to knight him, but Fred refuses on both counts. There is a piece of red cellophane in his fingers that he moves rhythmically. Absurd dreams spiced with nudity pop up here and there, and it is sometimes hard to tell which sequences are dreams and which sequences are reality.
I started looking at my watch seriously about 50 minutes into the movie. I started thinking about the time (what's left of my youth) I was wasting in the theater. I started thinking about the horrible script and the lines these fine actors were asked to deliver.
Michael and I agreed that it was kind of like Wes Andersen meets Fellini, but the result didn't carry the merits of either.
Shall I go into musical details? Why not. I hope that nobody reading this will waste the time or money to see this movie in a theater. The movie begins with someone singing a pop song. Later there is a music video with a pop star who is the new girlfriend of Harvey Keitel's character Mick Boyle's son (who was in the process of divorcing Fred's daughter). The Swiss vacation hotel has musical entertainment outside on a revolving circular stage that is set in the middle of a pool of water. Various novelty acts appear, all musically uninteresting.
The climax comes after Fred, in a scene that might have been left on the cutting room floor, decides to accept his knighthood and agrees to conduct "the philharmonic" in a concert of his "Simple Songs." The concert hall is a European traditional hall with gold-leaf and balconies. The men in the audience all wear black tuxedos with white shirts. The orchestra (which looks like a bunch of real musicians, and has an impressive-looking viola section) sits on a white stage with a white background and no walls (green-screened in as far as I can tell). The violinist Viktoria Mullova comes onstage (at least they had the decency to hire a real--and good--violinist), followed by a singer and an apathetic-looking (part of his character) Fred Ballinger. It's clear that Caine has no idea how to conduct, but, thankfully, the camera doesn't spend much time on him in this scene. The violin playing is good (particularly the off-camera arpeggios), and the singing is good (after the first few words of the text I was happy not to be able understand her diction). The audience is mesmerized. No one even claps at the end.
I know that I didn't fall asleep. I was paying attention. I somehow managed to miss the most important gesture in the film, and was left wondering why the previously overly-made-up and carefully-pasted-together Jane Fonda character was lying on her back screaming hysterically. Oh well. At least the movie ended.