Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenwriter: Paul Weitz, Anthony Weintraub, Ann Patchett, based on a novel by Ann Patchett
Cast: Julianne Moore, Christopher Lambert, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/27/18
Opens: September 14, 2018
If there’s one word to describe the plot, that word is “goofy.” Being goofy makes this a fun adventure to watch from your theater seat but it next to impossible to suspend disbelief enough to give the film a thumbs-up. “Bel Canto,” or “Beautiful Song,” was filmed in Mexico City to stand in for an unnamed South American state—possibly Peru because there’s a Japanese president or maybe Colombia because of its history of rebellions, “Bel Canto” has at least one thing going for it: that’s the exquisite soprano voice of Renée Fleming as lip-synched by Julianne Moore, whose role is that of opera star Roxanne Coss.
Paul Weitz, who directed films as varied as the TV series “Mozart in the Jungle,” about finding love and music in NY and “Little Fockers,” a comedy about a patriarch who needs to find a successor, is at the helm of this bizarre series of events. On exhibit is Stockholm Syndrome, in which a singer, like Patty Hearst in her own 1974 kidnap, identifies with a group of South American rebels holding her and a band of wealthy people hostage. By the same token, the rebels identify so much with the multi-millionaires they are holding captive, that they are risk becoming seduced by the bourgeoisie, i.e. taking a new interest in the culture and materialism of the middle and upper classes.
The rebels, led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) demand the release of all political prisoners and, in that regard, wind up holding the party-goers, dressed in formal attire for a party, for a month. Meanwhile, Messner (Sebastian Koch), a Swiss citizen working with the Red Cross, serves as negotiator, zipping back and forth from the elegant home of the vice president Ruben Ochoa. Here is a sample of the goofiness: Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) is in the South American country to negotiate a deal to put up some buildings, accompanied by his translator, Gen (Ryo Kase). In the course of the month as rebels and millionaires share a common humanity, Gen falls in love with a female rebel while teaching her to read both Spanish and English. They get it on. For her part Roxanne Coss, twice divorced and admittedly lonely despite her vast audience of opera buffs, digs Katsumi. They get it on. The entire contingent of green-uniformed Fidelista-type Marxists play soccer with the folks whom they have threated to kill. I think the invited party guests, including French Ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert), let the other guys win. Simon plays a mean piano to accompany Roxanne, and Roxanne teaches one of the rebels how to sing opera.
If you look up Ann Patchett’s novel on Amazon, you read critics’ comments about Bel Canto such as this one by Lloyd Moss of WQXR, “…should be on the list of every literate music lover. The story is riveting, the participants breathe and feel and are alive, and throughout this elegantly-told novel, music pours forth so splendidly that the reader hears it and is overwhelmed by its beauty.” You’ve got to wonder just how much of the best-seller comes across in the movie. The book does not appear to be at all (pardon the iteration) goofy.
102 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C+
Acting – B-
Technical – C+
Overall – C+