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With: Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Olivia Williams, James Coburn, Julianna Margulies, Michael Des Barres, Richard Bradford, Anjelica Huston, Xander Berkeley, Sherman Howard, Joe Santos, Susan Barnes, Tracey Walter
Written by: Phillip Jayson Lasker
Directed by: George Hickenlooper
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content
Running Time: 106
Date: 09/13/2001
IMDB

The Man From Elysian Fields (2002)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Hack Book

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Man from Elysian Fields reminds us that, before anything else, movies must be written by someone. When the movie in question is all about the business and art of writing, it calls attention to itself. You begin to listen carefully to words, cadences and rhythms. And, in The Man from Elysian Fields, which opens today at the Embarcadero Cinema, it begins to stink to high heaven.

Andy Garcia plays Byron Tiller, a one-shot writer whose first book, Hitler's Child (a cheesy thriller that was implausibly compared to Hemingway in the New York Times Book Review), has already come and gone and has landed in the remainder bin at 75 percent off cover price. Tiller has labored for some time over his second novel, a tome about migrant workers, and -- not surprisingly -- his publisher rejects it (Tiller doesn't seem to try any other publishers, though). Sitting in a bar and drowning his sorrows in booze, he's approached by slick, silky Luther Fox (Mick Jagger), who gives him his business card and promises him a job.

It turns out Fox runs a male escort service. Desperate for cash, and lying to his wife (Julianna Margulies) about the response to his new book, he takes the job. Lucky for him his first customer is not an aged, wrinkled biddy -- it's gorgeous Olivia Williams (Rushmore). Better yet, she just happens to be married to Pulitzer Prize winner Tobias Allcott (James Coburn), who just happens to be dying and stuck for creative ideas for his new novel. Allcott takes a shine to the young writer and asks for his help, promising a co-credit on the finished book.

Even an emerging writer should be smart enough to not believe any of this "golden opportunity" stuff for a second. And Tiller ruins it by continuing to lie to his wife, even though he seems to be out of the house 24 hours a day. Could she really believe that he's at "meetings" this whole time? Is she even dumber than he is?

The weirdest thing about The Man from Elysian Fields is that the five actors -- plus Anjelica Huston as one of the escort service's most loyal customers -- manage to overcome the bad writing with solid performances. Coburn sinks his teeth into the aging godlike writer character, who is similar to Sterling Hayden's Hemingwayesqe boozer in The Long Goodbye. And Margulies has a few moments that bring her a notch above the usual suffering wife character, one in particular in which she models a new men's suit she's bought for Tiller. Jagger, especially, steals his few scenes as the aging and ever-so-slightly jaded escort who has learned after years on the job to be smooth and gentlemanly, almost to the point of effeminate. His hair is piled and coiffed and his purple ties scream leisure. His tragedy is that he's fallen in love with his one client, Huston, who has never seen him as more than a trick.

But the movie falls prey to its screenplay, which wraps up with the expected I've-written-a-new-book-about-all-my-experiences ending. Tiller reads from his new book -- a bestseller -- in a bookstore in front of an enraptured crowd, breaking down in tears at the sound of his own words. Fox is glimpsed in the crowd, clearly moved. The words are also enough for Tiller to win his wife back; the director tries a "surprise" shot in which she suddenly turns up in the front of the autograph line. The trouble is that when Tiller reads from the book, the writing is just awful -- no New York Times book reviewer in his or her right mind would ever compare him to Hemingway, or anyone else halfway competent. Where Hemingway's sentences were short, stocky girders, Tiller's prose is flabby and gutless. The screenplay is by Phillip Jayson Lasker, who wrote for television shows such as "The Golden Girls" and "Barney Miller," so I can perhaps understand and forgive his dreams of greatness.

The director, George Hickenlooper, however, has a strange list of credits. He helped make the astonishing Hearts of Darkness documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now as well as the short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade, which led to Billy Bob Thornton's feature film. But he also butchered Orson Welles' unfilmed script The Big Brass Ring, turning it into a forgettable 1999 straight-to-cable film. Ultimately, I would guess that Hickenlooper is a man knows good acting but perhaps not good writing.

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