One of the characters in The Man from Elysian Fields is a novelist whose work is beloved because he writes such realistic characters. It’s ironic that what ultimately kills Elysian Fields is that its central character is so unbelievable.
Off to a Bad Start
R for language, adult themes
Andy Garcia plays writer Byron Tiller, a one-novel wonder looking for that second great idea. At the bookstore he tries to convince strangers to buy his deeply discounted thriller, but even if they bought a copy, he still couldn’t make ends meet. His wife works, but with their 3-year old son, they really need some more income.
The first unbelievable moment for Byron — or should I say for screenwriter Phillip Jayson Lasker — is when he lies to his wife about a publishing deal. He says he got one even though he didn’t.
In an earlier scene, Elysian Fields shows us that Byron and Dena (Julianna Marguiles) are a loving, supporting couple. But what loving man would lie to his wife over something as important and as hard to conceal as not getting a contract? She’s guaranteed to find out it’s a lie. Nor is it believable that a loving wife could be so ignorant of her husband’s emotions that she takes his word over the disappointment on his face and the hesitation in his voice.
The screenplay requires this lie to be told and believed, but unfortunately it also means lying to the audience about what kind of relationship these people were supposed to have. Already, Elysian Fields is off to a bad start.
The Chance of a Lifetime
At a bar Byron had met a man named Luther Fox (Mick Jagger). Fox had offered him a job at his escort service (“Elysian Fields”), which Byron initially rejected. Now that he has a giant lie to cover, he accepts the job.
Byron gets assigned to Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams). Andrea is married, but her husband is dying and has been unable to pleasure her for some time, so he allows Andrea to hire the occasional male escort.
Byron eventually meets Andrea’s husband, the famous novelist Tobias Alcott. Tobias discovers that Byron is also a writer and invites him to help with his next (and presumably last) novel.
It’s the chance of a lifetime for Byron — co-authorship with one of the greatest living writers. Unfortunately this “chance of a lifetime” is wrapped inside a web of lies.
The dilemma at the heart of the movie is very interesting. What if the biggest break of your life comes along because you are cheating on your spouse? Do you accept opportunity’s knock and continue to lie to your family? Can you justify living a lie if it will launch your career and provide financial security for your loved ones? It’s too bad the movie isn’t better, because this central dilemma could form the basis of a very good movie.
(There are spoilers in this and the next paragraph: read at your own risk.) This film not only makes mistakes in order to get to this interesting center — remember Byron’s untenable lie and his wife’s cluelessness — it also makes mistakes afterwards. The final act includes a betrayal of trust, the breaking of a contract. Byron is blackmailed into accepting the betrayal because he’s still trying to cover up his big lie.
But blackmail only works when there is an unrevealed secret. Eventually, Byron’s wife discovers the secret, after which Byron cannot be blackmailed. He could easily pursue a lawsuit and justice. Instead, he chooses to live miserably, separating from his wife and son. Again, the film “needs” Byron to be this stupid because it uses his misery as inspiration for his second book.
Don’t Shoot the Actors
Somehow, the actors come off as blameless. Garcia shows well the conflicting emotions in Byron. The “disappointment on his face and hesitation in his voice” are exactly what’s called for in his early scene with his wife, and he plays it well. Olivia Williams is the next best player as Andrea. She wears a sad but patient look of sympathy for Byron, as though she hopes he will choose her, but leaves the decision entirely to him.
Some of the supporting players don’t do as well. Margulies doesn’t have much to work with and fails to salvage the role of Byron’s wife. And Jagger is just a little too over-the-top, too mysterious and intense for this conventional drama.
So The Man from Elysian Fields is a mixed bag. It makes compromises. It seeks an interesting moral tale, but at expense of characters behaving like intelligent human beings. It’s a mistake that its character Tobias Alcott would never make.