Strikes all the right chords
By LOU LUMENICK
One of the year’s most affecting performances is given by Christopher Walken, who takes a break from the likes of “Seven Psychopaths” to play a classical cellist stricken with Parkinson’s disease in the superb dramatic comedy “A Late Quartet.”
Walken was largely typecast in quirky roles as a result of playing the title character’s brother in “Annie Hall,” so it’s something of a delightful irony that 35 years later, Walken finds his most rewarding role leading a terrific ensemble in what amounts to one of the best Woody Allen movies that Allen wasn’t involved in making.
The career-ending diagnosis for Walken’s Peter comes as his internationally known string quartet is about to embark on its 25th season.
The gentle, cultured Peter has a plan — if he responds to treatment, he will bow out with the quartet’s first concert of the season, performing Beethoven’s very challenging Opus 131.
Peter is confident he can convince a friend (fellow Woody Allen veteran Wallace Shawn) to let his chosen replacement out of her contract to take Peter’s place. But he doesn’t count on the dissonance that his announcement generates within the group.
Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reckons that since the group’s sound is going to change anyway, this is the time to press his long-festering ambition to alternate on first violin with control-freak Daniel (Mark Ivanir).
Robert is crushed when his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener), the group’s viola player — who was raised by Peter and his late wife — refuses to support his idea, and accuses him of selfish behavior that could destroy the group.
Things get worse when the angry Robert embarks on a boozy, unwise one-night stand with a fiery flamenco dancer who’s also a classical-music groupie.
An added complication is that Robert and Juliette’s 22-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), an aspiring violinist, is taking lessons from Daniel. And there’s a growing romantic attraction between Alexandra and Daniel, who’s a long-ago ex-lover of Alexandra’s mother.
Yaron Zilberman, a documentarian making his feature debut, treads a fine line between farce and drama as these Upper West Siders (played by a superb ensemble) hurl decades’ worth of grievances against each other.
But it’s Walken who holds together “A Late Quartet” as the stricken Peter, who puts aside his own thoughts of suicide to rally his longtime colleagues. You won’t see a better piece of acting this year than his final speech — though odds are you’ll likely be watching it, like I did, through your tears.
Christopher Walken (second from right) does some of his finest work as a classical cellist who is stricken with Parkinson’s disease in the tear-jerker “A Late Quartet,” which also stars Mark Ivanir (from left), Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener.