- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

The maxim "beggars can't be choosers" is wittily and perhaps memorably illustrated in "The Man From Elysian Fields," a title the late Mary McCarthy might have envied. The team of director George Hickenlooper and screenwriter Philip Jayson Lasker also has contrived an astute and absorbing new variant on Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," demonstrating that no one is likely to have the last word on carriage-trade male prostitution in Southern California.

The names of both director and writer may not be familiar to many customers. The senior partner, Mr. Lasker, is a veteran of TV comedy whose credits include "The Golden Girls," "Barney Miller" and Bob Hope specials. "Elysian Fields" is evidently the first of his screenplays to be produced. Mr. Hickenlooper has directed five dramatic features, but he remains best known as the precocious Yale graduate who was entrusted with the revealing behind-the-scenes chronicle "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse." Released in 1991, it documented Francis Ford Coppola's trials and tribulations while shooting "Apocalypse Now" in the late 1970s.

Andy Garcia, also a co-producer, portrays the compromised protagonist of "Elysian Fields," a struggling novelist named Byron Tiller, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., and is introduced in a humorously excruciating moment of writer's vanity hustling a remaindered copy of one of his books while browsing in a hometown bookstore. Tiller has too much time to kill. We observe him get desperate enough to conceal a lucrative moonlighting job as a male escort from his devoted wife Dena (Julianna Margulies).

The agency he works for is called Elysian Fields. The office is on the same floor of the building where Tiller has been toiling away at rejected manuscripts. The proprietor, Luther Fox, is a wearily elegant and solicitous wraith embodied by Mick Jagger, who suggests a lost leprechaun and also serves as a wistful narrator. One could envision a series spinoff called "The Gigolo," a cross between "The Millionaire" and "Red Shoes Diaries."

As it transpires, the seasoned Luther proves as emotionally vulnerable as the untutored Tiller: He figures in a sardonic subplot about an all too sincere infatuation with a long-term client, a wealthy widow named Jennifer Adler (Anjelica Huston).

A celebrity literary couple, the Alcotts, monopolize Tiller's services. A young wife named Andrea (Olivia Williams) is being pampered by her considerably older and now dying spouse Tobias (James Coburn), a best-selling writer. Infirmity has reconciled him to the idea that a full life for his beloved requires a gigolo around the house. In addition to stud service that tends to look rather sheepish, since Tobias has a habit of barging into Andrea's bedchamber to kibitz, the weak and susceptible Tiller also is drafted as an editor and ultimately a co-writer on Alcott's sprawling final opus, "The Silent Balladeer." Indeed, Tiller expects co-writing recognition when the book is published.

The story is, of course, calculated to disillusion him, trusting that the audience will recognize the pitfalls well before the protagonist, too full of wishful thinking and pet playmate vanity to anticipate his lack of genuine credibility or leverage with wealthy and privileged patrons. As Luther ruefully observes, "They're still paying you as a whore. Don't forget that."

Eventually, Tiller suffers a rude awakening. By that time, the trusting Dena has become an estranged wife, and the chances of him rescuing both his marriage and self-respect look pretty dim. The prospect of slamming the door decisively on a reconciliation appears unbearable to the filmmakers, and there's a sense in which it would seem superfluous, because Miss Huston does slam the door on Mr. Jagger's fond hopes with enough reverberation for several movies about softhearted male prostitutes.

One imagines the film having a perverse relevance to contemporary Hollywood, although it pretends to operate outside the orbit of the movie business. The number of women in the film colony with prerogatives that duplicate those of an Andrea Alcott or Jennifer Adler may outnumber counterparts in most parts of the country or economy. They do not necessarily have to feel guilty about requiring the paid attentions of courtiers such as Tiller or Luther Fox, but "The Man From Elysian Fields" is a reminder that there is a heavy intangible price tag associated with every transaction that degrades romantic desire and loyalty.

***

TITLE: "The Man From Elysian Fields"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and systematic sexual candor, involving carriage-trade prostitution)

CREDITS: Directed by George Hickenlooper. Written by Philip Jayson Lasker.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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