Overrated epic, underrated gem
’Lincoln’ is a bloated misfire, while ‘A Late Quartet’ is a quiet masterpiece
By Carl Kozlowski 11/15/2012
Epic movies may get the biggest hype, but that doesn’t always make them the best films. At the same time, sometimes the films with the least hype turn out to be real treasures.
A perfect example of this comes this week, with the bloated misfire “Lincoln” sucking all the hype out of Hollywood’s PR machine for Steven Spielberg’s and Daniel Day Lewis’ take on the legendary president, while the tiny indie “A Late Quartet” offers a stunning cast in a small masterpiece about a classical-music quartet in danger of collapsing after 25 years together. While both films are aimed at high-end moviegoers, “Quartet,” with its stellar trio of lead turns by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken, is the one that hits its targets.
“Lincoln” should have been a film for the ages, since it has been a project on Spielberg’s wish list for more than a decade. Its screenplay was adapted by Tony-winning writer Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) from famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s historical tome, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and Daniel Day Lewis is an acting master who flat-out nails the president’s distinctive look.
And yet, the biggest problems lie in the film’s very scope. One might expect it to be a full-life biography of Lincoln or, based on the shocking war footage in its ads, a story of the full Civil War.
Instead, it’s the tale of the arm-twisting chicanery and near-blackmail Lincoln and a team of his underlings used to convince 20 Democrats to vote for the 13th Amendment and effectively end slavery. In fact, “The 13th Amendment” would be a better name for the film, except for the fact that three-quarters of today’s moviegoers would likely see the “13” and think it was a horror movie or a sequel, or both.
Much of these tactics are amusing, especially when carried out by Democratic operative W.N. Bilbo, portrayed by James Spader, who is unrecognizable onscreen after growing a walrus mustache and appearing to be the size of a walrus himself. But when one is misled into expecting a battle epic and the only battle footage literally takes place in the opening two minutes of the movie — with distracting voiceover narration even then — the movie is not delivering what it’s selling to viewers, and what it is delivering is nowhere near as interesting or entertaining.
Think about it: Abraham Lincoln is one of the most compelling figures in world history, but the movie focuses on his greatest legislative victory rather than his life. If your idea of a good time at the movies is watching racist old white men being shamed into voting the right way through near-dirty tricks and a crowd of black people who enter the House of Representatives’ visitors’ gallery just in time for the vote, this is the movie for you.
Add in the fact that there are so many random historical figures scattered throughout the film that at least half of them are first seen onscreen with their names and official positions listed, and the whole thing feels more like a 2 ½ hour homework project than a great film. And unlike the other, truly great historical film of the season — Ben Afflecks “Argo” — “Lincoln” suffers from the fact that everyone knows how it ends.
Meanwhile, “Quartet” is a sharply written character drama focusing on the lives of people in a classical-music quartet in New York City coming apart at the seams after a quarter-century of performing together. Peter Mitchell (Walken) is a cellist who slowly realizes his fingers aren’t playing as adeptly as they should, leading to his learning he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
While Mitchell has a couple of years before he will be truly impacted, he tells the other three he wants the first concert of their new season to be his personal finale. With that surprising admission, fault lines start to form among the others, as married couple Robert (Hoffman) and Alexandra Gelbart (Keener) suddenly start pouring out years of resentment and jealousy and Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) shocks both of them by carrying on a secret affair with their twentysomething daughter (Imogen Poots).
“Quartet” has a vastly smaller budget than “Lincoln” and a much more intimate story to tell, but it manages to weave its web of personal intrigue in a more compelling fashion. The actors all respond to the rich screenplay by writer-director Yaron Zilberman, a documentarian making his fiction-film debut, with some of the best performances of their careers.
Walken, in particular, is astonishing, if only for playing a normal human being after a career spent portraying psychopathic characters. Facing the end of his most productive years with sad resilience, he struggles to be the glue holding the quartet together as they threaten to throw away decades of hard work and friendship.
Hoffman and Keener have a faceoff that is positively electric with emotion, and Ivanir makes Daniel all the more unpredictable because of his own relative anonymity as an actor. Those who appreciate truly intelligent filmmaking that is also not utterly predictable should jump to see this rare gem of a film.