While Merchant-Ivory may no longer be the brand name in literary adaptations that it was 20 years ago, there are still lingering expectations of a James Ivory-directed, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala-scripted film. At the very least, we are almost certainly guaranteed a fine cast of performers engaging in lofty, character-revealing dialogue amidst a beautiful countryside landscape. Suffice to say, there aren’t many other filmmakers out there doing anything like this, and there is something to be said for a fairly consistent creative partnership that has spanned nearly 50 years (Ismail Merchant, the producer, passed away in 2005).
With The City of Your Final Destination, based on the novel by Peter Cameron, Ivory ventures from the strictly literary into more postmodern territory. Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally) is a mild-mannered Iranian-American graduate student whose fellowship hinges on writing a biography of deceased author Jules Gund. When Gund’s estate denies his request, Omar’s type-A girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara) forces him to visit the surviving family members in Uruguay. Omar literally shows up at the doorstep of Ocho Rios, where he discovers the family wallowing in their own eccentricity. Caroline (Laura Linney), Gund’s widow, lives with her husband’s lover, Arden Langdon (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the offspring of that marital transgression, Portia. In the adjacent house, Gund’s brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) lives with his partner/adopted son Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada). As Omar tries to convince them to allow him to write the book, he finds himself enchanted by their world and is particularly drawn to Arden.
What Omar is really enamored with, of course, is being able to literally jump into his hero’s world, a blur of the real and the fictitious. While Gund does not exist outside the world of this film (and Cameron’s novel, presumably), Ivory conveys the fact that Gund based everything on his own life, and that the people Omar encounters are the “characters” of Gund’s last novel. Ivory can be given credit here for going beyond rudimentary male fantasy into the uncharted realm of academic fantasy, though certainly there is an Oedipal element to Omar pursuing his research subject’s own love interest. Omar himself states at one point he is no longer writing a biography, but the story of his own experiences with the Gund cadre.
Ultimately, it seems Ivory is asking a perverse question: Why can’t someone live in a fantasy world? To his credit, Ivory also explores the flip side of that question with Caroline’s plight. If Omar wants to cast off the shackles of his humdrum existence in the real world of academia, then Caroline wants to emerge from the fantasy created by her husband. Caroline exists as a caricature of a literary matriarch, a faded beauty traipsing around in outlandish costumes, as though Alice were forced to grow old in Wonderland. Serving as the only real touch of irony in the film, Caroline’s desire to appreciate art is hindered by her being forced to be art.
Ivory almost manages to both return to form and break new creative ground here. Rather than embrace the metafiction with gusto, he falls back on tired character arcs and focuses on some of the film’s less compelling themes. He shockingly succumbs to the cliché of using a teacher’s curricular text to mirror the protagonist’s emotional state, a device that seems much too amateurish for someone with Ivory’s resume. He also presents the fairly weak central metaphor of sinking in quicksand, a sequence quickly spliced into the film’s opening montage and given a lip service of explanation, to drive the primary thematic notion of being, well, stuck in place. Given the subject matter, it’s hard to resist drawing comparisons from this motif to Ivory’s own career, which has lurched in the last decade.