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Movie Review

The City of Your Final Destination

In this ‘City,’ drama is kept in reserve

Omar Metwally (top right) plays an academic seeking to write about a dead author. Charlotte Gainsbourg (with Metwally) plays the author’s former lover. Omar Metwally (top right) plays an academic seeking to write about a dead author. Charlotte Gainsbourg (with Metwally) plays the author’s former lover. (Juan Quirno/Merchant Ivory Productions)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 28, 2010

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What’s a Merchant Ivory movie without the Merchant? “The City of Your Final Destination’’ offers tantalizing, slightly sad answers. For one thing, if producer and legendary indie-film macher Ismail Merchant hadn’t died in 2005, the latest film from his longtime director and partner James Ivory probably wouldn’t have taken three years to find a distributor. It arguably might have been a more focused film, too, instead of the exquisite, precious trifle we have before us.

But if attractive people beautifully photographed in stunning foreign locations aren’t worth a little attention, why bother going to the movies at all? (The new “Sex and the City’’ movie will make a mint this weekend reneging on that very promise.) Based on a novel by Peter Cameron and adapted by the Merchant-Ivory team’s longstanding writing partner, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, “The City of Your Final Destination’’ concerns a handsome young Iranian-American academic named Omar (Omar Metwally) who wants to write an authorized biography of a famous dead author named Jules Gund.

Gund’s surviving relatives, a trio of expatriates living in Uruguay, say no. Omar’s girlfriend urges him to fly down and press his case; an officious beauty named Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), she’s used to getting her way, and the easygoing if not spineless Omar does as he’s told.

In Uruguay, he finds a juicy stew of incestuous family discontent. Living on the sprawling Gund estate are the writer’s tightly wound widow, Caroline (Laura Linney), the naïve young lover, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with whom he had a daughter (Ambar Mallman), and his older brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins), the latter a dry Continental sort with a long-term Japanese lover named Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada). Pete’s the only one who seems to care about keeping the ranch running; the other three prefer to bicker, drink, and poke holes in each other’s egos.

You don’t waste a cast like that, and “City’’ earns its keep just by observing Hopkins, Gainsbourg, and Linney collide like irritated billiard balls. Don’t expect florid Tennessee Williams theatrics; it’s a James Ivory movie, so everyone’s lethally genteel, even when Omar and Arden — the two romantics in this crew — find their attraction impossible to deny.

The author and his novel turn out to be MacGuffins, utterly beside the point; the drama of whether the childlike Omar will act on his feelings is the main dramatic engine and that’s not quite enough to sustain “City.’’ Indecisiveness is hard enough to make compelling; indecisiveness at the heart of a movie can kill it, or at least keep it from stirring into life.

So our eyes tend to wander to Linney as she wrestles, not entirely successfully, with her character’s bitter, brittle intelligence, or to Hopkins as he portrays an elderly gay man for whom discretion is both camouflage and philosophy. The film gets a lift whenever Argentine film legend Norma Aleandro turns up as a local grande dame, and when Deirdre arrives on the scene to reclaim her Omar, the stand-off between her and Caroline — two frustrated tigresses — primes you for an explosion that never comes. Ivory prefers the long hiss of the burning fuse.

It smolders becomingly enough thanks to Javier Aguirresarobe’s crystalline camerawork and Jorge Drexler’s luscious score. For those who’ve followed Ivory’s career, it’s cheering as well to see footage from his debut film, the 1957 documentary “Venice: Theme and Variations,’’ incorporated into this one. “The City of Your Final Destination’’ is very much about the perils and pleasures of living on one’s memories, and that Ivory’s first movie since his partner’s death carries echoes of the one film he made before meeting Merchant is a touching resonance. Not enough to make “The City of Your Final Destination’’ stick, though. What was intended as a tart elegy for a vanished way of life becomes a valedictory to a certain kind of filmmaking: beautifully appointed, intelligently played, and civilized into inertia.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION Directed by: James Ivory

Written by: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on a novel by Peter Cameron

Starring: Omar Metwally, Anthony Hopkins, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Laura Linney, Alexandra Maria Lara

At: Kendall Square and West Newton

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (brief sexual situation with partial nudity)

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