James Coburn is just great in The Man from Elysian Fields, one of his final performances before recently succumbing to a heart attack. As a dying, once-great novelist, the veteran actor displays a combination of fire and vulnerability that makes him a riveting presence.
Unfortunately, such generous adjectives can't be used for Elysian, which has a promising premise but does little of interest with it. Andy Garcia plays Byron Triller, a struggling novelist who has mounds of trouble supporting his young family. Out of luck and out of nowhere, Byron meets a mysterious, upscale pimp, Luther (Mick Jagger), who thinks Byron would be an ideal addition to his escort service.
Byron is initially reluctant, but he's soon regularly dating the beautiful wife (Olivia Williams) of great novelist Tobias Alcott (Coburn). Alcott understands that he can't satisfy his wife anymore and accepts Byron. Soon after, he learns of Byron's other profession and asks Byron to evaluate his manuscript. That opportunity begins a chain of events that affects Byron's personal and professional life, especially his relationship with his supportive and somewhat oblivious wife (Julianna Marguiles).
The acting in Elysian is solid, especially from Coburn as well as Jagger -- who seems to have been born for this role. Coburn and Garcia also have some great scenes together, showing the passion writers have for their work. But Phillip Jayson Lasker's script lets everybody down. Byron's decision to alter his lifestyle is handled with about as much urgency as if he was buying a new pair of loafers. You're never fully convinced that he's risking anything. The filmmakers also ruin Luther by briefly chronicling his love affair with a client (Anjelica Huston in a pointless role). Their two scenes go a long way in destroying the influence Luther has on Byron, as well as puncturing his persona as a mysterious lothario. Lasker probably wanted to prove a point about the perils of fidelity but it deflates any on-screen sexiness (which is oddly lacking to begin with).
Enjoying Elysian takes a pretty big leap of faith, but the sense of convenience eventually becomes smothering. The ending feels overwhelmingly phony, considering the string of struggles that continue to befall Byron. Hasn't the guy suffered enough already? A movie at its best is a form of virtual reality; it's a representation of another world. At about the 80-minute point in Elysian, we see how the strings are pulled. Suddenly, hackneyed events take place that seem done solely to drum up emotions and to get the best possible ending. Marguiles's character suddenly gets a backbone, Williams's character does an about face that comes straight from a soap opera and Byron gets one step closer to living in a dumpster. And there's more after that.
I would have enjoyed Elysian more if the filmmakers had tried to ease off the dramatic fireworks and just let the characters and their dilemmas naturally progress. By the end, we don't feel as if we know the people or what they've endured. All we know for sure is that Coburn will be missed.