James Ivory’s new melodramatic claptrap The City of Your Final Destination slowly reveals life-changing events in the most dramatically inert conversations and actions. Everyone, even the most oblivious and ignorant characters, get a chance at redemption and salvation, no matter how ridiculous the happy-endings. For two hours, this laborious film poses as a serious examination of memory and love, evoking a damnable self-serious tone eroding the viewer’s patience with every passing minute. Cinematic torture has never been this measured.
After an intriguingly hazy credit sequence filtering images of Venice from underwater vantage points, Ivory’s film shifts to the tonally dry existence of literature professor Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), who chases a runaway dog through the forest only to get his boot stuck in a bog of quicksand. This simplistic and misleading symbolic foreshadowing comes as Omar receives a note from the estate of infamous novelist Jules Gund denying him access to write a biography, throwing the academic into a passive aggressive fit of panic. Omar’s strong-willed girlfriend Diedre (Alexandra Maria Lara) urges him into action, and after a bit of whining, our hero (I use that term loosely) sets out to convince the trustees of his scholarly merit. Omar hesitantly makes the trek, arriving at the elaborate South American plantation weary and worn. Predictably, Omar’s presence complicates the lives of Gund’s eccentric family, including sly brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins), secretive wife Caroline (Laura Linney), and naive mistress Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
During this arduous set-up, Ivory lets each character settle in to a collective rhythm mixing conversations and silence. Omar finds the quiet purity of the estate a clarifying respite from the overbearing presence of Diedre, and the three-headed Gund snake wiggles in all different directions, bickering amongst themselves over the bio that could potentially unearth certain family secrets and upend their seclusion. Ivory balances each of these conversations with a delicate attention to natural light and sounds, creating a durable and unique space for these characters to exist within. But the terribly sentimental and simplistic script by Ruth Prawer Jhbavala – with lines like “Adam, do you like life?” – continuously interrupt the film’s attempts at poetic grace, miring the entire narrative in laughable moments of drama and romance.
For a film supposedly based completely in the patterns of character, The City of Your Final Destination sports very little human depth and nuance. There is no narrative momentum, and the actions that do develop come across as trite, especially the fateful bee sting defining the film’s climax. It represents a terrible pattern of inconsequential plot devices, rendering the great cast completely helpless in the process. And Ivory can’t seem to rectify the unrelenting indulgent streak washing over each of these scenes. A series of flimsy plot twists send the film into a dramatic tailspin during the final act, leading to a denouement so unearned and lazy it’ll offend even the most forgiving Ivory apologist. With the talent involved and the lyrical scope of the story, there’s probably an interesting film somewhere in The City of Your Final Destination. But instead of focusing on the many subtextual conflicts tainting each character’s perception of reality, the film focuses on a sweeping literary examination of pride and prejudice, a motif that completely falls flat from start to finish.
But the greatest sin of The City of Your Final Destination is its weak-willed protagonist Omar, a hollow mass of skin and bones mindlessly walking through poetic interludes without a care in the world. His abrasive treatment of Diedre is borderline offensive, even if she comes across as domineering. Her confidence is the only potent characteristic in the entire film, and Ivory ridicules her for it, while Omar’s incompetence and juvenile charm is seen as a virtue. By the end of this titanic stinker, it’s hard to care either way.