Director George Hickenlooper’s ’86 “The Man from Elysian Fields” is an old-fashioned fable set in modern-day Pasadena, Calif. Its mystical tone, reflective pace, and homely score complement a story fueled by unbridled passion and emotion. The film teaches its listener to enjoy the simple riches of family and love and cautions against the destructive pursuit of material success and public approval.
To berate a movie that aspires to deliver such a heartfelt and genuine moral lesson is a difficult task. Modern cinema so often focuses on the craft it displays rather than the message it imparts. But “The Man from Elysian Fields” goes too far in its quest for emotional truth: it takes sincerity to saccharine extremes. Despite initial promises of basic storytelling and artlessness, the film’s unsubtle attempts to prove the honesty of its cautionary lesson cause uncomfortable melodrama to disrupt natural realism.
Andy Garcia plays Byron Tiller, a struggling author with a loving wife and child to support. After his publisher rejects his latest novel about migrant workers with the commercial opinion that “symbolism doesn’t sell,” Byron desperately seeks out a source of income to hide his failure as a novelist. But all of Byron’s potential job opportunities fail to materialize. While he is drowning his sorrows at a local bar, he conveniently meets a mysterious man (Mick Jagger) who claims to be Byron’s “public,” meaning he’s the only person who bothered perusing Byron’s opaque book on Hitler. The mystery man introduces himself as Luther Fox, and he quickly offers Byron a chance to make some money. The means to gain the dough, Byron quickly learns, is basically a classier version of the pimp-prostitute scenario: the suave gentleman recruiting the male escort. Without informing his trusting wife Dena (Julianna Margulies), he reluctantly agrees to temporarily please strange women for money in order to briefly alleviate the embarrassment of his financial maladies.
His first and only customer is the beautiful but lonely Andrea Allcott (Olivia Williams), the caring wife of the legendary but fatally-ill writer Tobias Allcott (James Coburn). Tobias has permitted his wife to dally with trained professionals, a development that provides some hilarious sequences when Coburn stomps into the bedroom mid-fellatio to engage the intertwined duo in awkward small talk. Tobias and Andrea take a liking to the polite Byron, and soon Byron is neglecting his own family to bond with the great writer. When Tobias asks Byron to co-write his final novel with him, Byron forgets why he took Luther Fox’s offer in the first place. He forsakes his family concerns to his career; his distant, aloof behavior becomes more than Dena can bear. And in true morality tale fashion, the walls come tumbling down and the results prove catastrophic.
Hickenlooper hints at strong directorial instincts in his early explication of Byron and Dena’s complicated relationship. He doesn’t rush to the intrigue that the male escort plot twist promises but instead patiently lingers on the apparent perfection of their loving marriage. As a result of this natural story flow, the audience comes to understand that their union is almost too blissful — Byron longs for success in his career, and Dena’s “I love you no matter what” support seems to smother his aching ambition. By taking his time, Hickenlooper makes Byron’s counterintuitive decision to sell his body oddly understandable.
But the film cannot maintain this natural storytelling as it enters a realm of betrayal and hysteria better suited to an episode of “Days of Our Lives.” This transformation is especially vivid in the performances. Garcia creates a wonderful portrait early in the film of a man desperately seeking contentment even as he reels from bitter disappointment. But he finds himself caught in the overdone Allcott triangle, and by the film’s conclusion he has become unsympathetic and unidentifiable. There is a discrepancy between his believable decision to become a male escort and his incredulous inability to connect with his distant wife. Garcia is partly to blame for his loss of touch with his early character decisions, but the sappy dialogue doesn’t help him maintain this dignity.
Although Jagger’s performance remains consistent throughout the film, his presence alone feels wildly at odds with Hickenlooper’s intent and purpose. For a movie that bats nary an ironic lash, the decision to cast the icon of 1960s rebellion as narrator of 1950s-style innocence is unintentionally hilarious. It doesn’t help that Jagger is not an actor, and certainly not a good actor who can carry the film’s morality-heavy narration with his drug-worn British drawl. One could argue that he is underacting intentionally to add surprise to his unsettlingly crude sex comments (he describe male escorts as “cocker spaniels with hard-ons”), but it is more likely that his calmness reflects an inability to intone and perform when not wailing about his inability to get any satisfaction.
The story falters when it attempts to drive home its moral lesson. Byron’s extended adventures with the Allcotts were simply an excuse to allow Byron to moan, groan and feel sorry for himself for the rest of the film. Characters make choices that feel less natural and more gimmicky. For example, an angry Dena seeks out a male escort of her own. The audience is supposed to assume her desperation is the result of Byron’s neglect, but even so, her actions do not support the reasonable woman we have come to know.
By the final scene, Hickenlooper has clearly lost all faith in his characters to tell the story. Having endured the trials and hardships that he brought upon himself, Byron fully clarifies his feelings to the audience by reading a passage (and a poorly-written one at that) from his newly published book at his fancy new book signing. The movie has gone from showing us what to think to telling us straight out. Jagger’s final narrative declaration further fuels the fire of emotional and moral excess. The wise pimp reflectively decides that he’s “been spending [his] entire life trying to give pleasure to women. But learning to please just one — that is something to write about.” That this line is true does not detract from the fact that it is unintentionally the most over-the-top, laugh-out-loud moment in the entire film.