The Ismail Merchant-James Ivory partnership ended in 2005 with the death of Merchant, the producing end of the team that also included screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Their films initially covered Indian-British themes (Shakespeare-Wallah, Bombay Talkie) and later moved into their famous adaptations of high-end fiction works as well as excursions into high-end decadence (Jefferson in Paris, Surviving Picasso, Slaves of New York).
Their E.M. Forster films in particular (Room With a View, Maurice, Howards End) struck a chord with audiences even as the fussy Edwardian settings became the subject of parody and eye rolling. The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films certainly stoked interest in a certain period's literature, and they also provided early, memorable parts for such actors as Hugh Grant, Daniel Day-Lewis, Helena Bonham Carter, Thandie Newton, Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Thompson.
Five years after Merchant's death, it's inspiring to see the 81-year-old Ivory and the 83-year-old Jhabvala carry on with their partnership with The City of Your Final Destination, but it's a real pity that it's such a dull, dull affair. Based on a novel by Peter Cameron, the film introduces us to a young literary scholar who travels to a remote ranch in Uruguay, where he hopes to persuade the family of a recently deceased author to authorize a biography. And that's it: For two hours, they keep talking about the biography of an author who evidently wrote only one book before he, perhaps, killed himself.
The author's estate (literary and otherwise) is tended by his widow Caroline (Laura Linney, doing her best to convey the glamour of a penniless Eva Perón), his mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and his somewhat underhanded brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins). Also on the estate, among these bored, slack white people (so common, of course, in Merchant-Ivory films) is an Asian man, Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), who represents the industry and ambition of the colonized and is also Adam's longtime lover.
Pete wants money and sees the biography as a way to stimulate book sales, while Caroline wants money to return to Europe. Arden, meanwhile, ardently desires love. Sadly for Arden, the only young straight male in the film is Omar, the meek would-be biographer, played with a remarkable lack of charisma by Omar Metwally. Complicating Omar's situation very uninterestingly is that he has a strident, careerist girlfriend back in the States (a thankless role played straight by Alexandra Maria Lara, when a comic touch could have improved both the part and the film).
This film turns into Exhibit A for writing advice David Mamet once gave: "If a scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted ... Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit." The City of Your Final Destination is a procession of characters talking about other characters—and about that damn biography. With the exception of Hiroyuki Sanada and, in a small role, Argentine grande dame Norma Aleandro, the actors seem like they're barely paying attention. Hopkins has given his share of lazy performances, but it's more surprising and dispiriting to see how bored such lively actors as Linney and Gainsbourg seem to be. Ivory and Jhabvala may have more films in them; here's hoping for a better swan song.