The thing to remember while watching THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS is that this is a parable. Its relationship to the real world is symbolic, hence a male escort service named after the classical Greek take on the afterlife, and a writer who thinks that there is a place for his literate prose in a world where Danielle Steele is a gazillionare.
The writer would be Byron Tiller, played by the film’s co-producer, Andy Garcia. When we meet him, he’s pondering his life and his empty bank account while trying to drum up a sale for his novel, which resides on the remaindered table at a fashionable bookstore in Pasadena. He’s barking up the wrong tree, but Byron’s great talent may not be his prose, but rather his inability to see things clearly. It’s a failing he shares with his wife, who loves him unconditionally, and who quotes his rave reviews as part of their foreplay.
When his publisher turns down his latest book about migrant workers for being too symbolic in the microcosm sense, a last shred of financial hope meanders purposefully into Byron’s life in the form of Luther Fox. He’s proprietor of the ci-mentioned Elysian Fields and when he offers Byron work, the tale takes the plunge into a series of neat twists and turns that I would be remiss to give away. They swirl around Byron’s client, Andrea Alcott, the beautiful young wife of a dying and very old Pulitzer-prize winning writer who encourages the relationship and who happens to be one of Byron’s idols. What should have been a tidy and mutually satisfying arrangement instead becomes an object lesson in honesty when Byron forgets that Andrea is truly in love with her husband, both of whom welcome him with open arms and one with ulterior motives.
Filmed in a stylish noir-esque fashion by George Hickenlooper, the brooding shadows underscore nicely the compromises Byron makes with his conscience. The script, by Philip Jayson Lasker, is nicely leavened with sharp wit, making for a piquant counterpoint to Byron’s descent. None is more pointed than when Byron asks Luther, played with cool suavity and the proper amount of world-weariness by Mick Jagger, whether he’s embarrassed to be in the business of pleasuring rich women. No, replies Luther, only poverty is embarrassing. Yet Luther, too, learns a lesson in the course of the film at the hands of his longtime client played by Anjelica Huston. When the boom is lowered, Jagger, who could have walked through the part, shows a surprising depth as life poleaxes him. And since, in a film like this, the performances are key, we’re in luck. Garcia is his usual smoldering and hunky self, but there’s an earnestness to those soulful eyes that lets you suffer with him on his first assignment, and root for him as he wages war with his own better nature. Olivia Williams as Andrea Alcott has the face of an angel and a spine of steel. James Coburn as her dying husband generates the shadow of his characters hell-raising voracious appetite for life with just the right glint in his eye at the wonder and absurdity of it all, whether philosophizing about reincarnation or interrupting his wife and Byron in media res to offer an off the cuff bon mot. Rounding out the proceedings is Julianna Margulies as Byron’s wife. She brings a grit and toughness to what could have been a doormat of a role but instead makes her a sympathetic character whose very loyalty complicates Byrons life.
Ultimately, though, its Byron’s capacity for self-delusion and Andrea’s absolute loyalty that will have people arguing about the right and wrong of what each does in the course of THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS. This might just be the most intriguing date movie since INDECENT PROPOSAL.