Early in The City Of Your Final Destination, Omar Metwally’s prim, domineering girlfriend (Alexandra Maria Lara) chides him for having stained his pants by stepping into quicksand: “It’s like you have this subconscious drive to fall in, to mess up.” In any other movie, that line would be a thematic key to his character, and a portent of things to come. In this case, though, it’s a teasing hint at a more structured story where the protagonist’s personality might have some effect. This moment initially seems too obvious and on-the-nose, but as it turns out, nothing about Destination is anywhere near so direct. It’s a frustratingly oblique film where few events connect, and fewer moments matter.
Metwally stars as a Kansas-based Ph.D. candidate with a grant to write a biography of Jules Gund, who wrote a single, celebrated book about his parents, then committed suicide midway through writing a second work. But Gund’s executors deny Metwally the authorization to write the book. Lara spurs him to go to Uruguay to persuade them—Gund’s brother (Anthony Hopkins), wife (Laura Linney), and mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg), all of whom live on Gund’s vast estate together. Gainsbourg invites him to stay at the house, and so begins a slow progression of tête-à-têtes marked by Metwally’s guileless, puppy-dog eagerness; Gainsbourg’s delicate attraction to him, and Linney’s stony judgments. Meanwhile, Hopkins—a languid, urbane gay man whose capable Japanese partner (Hiroyuki Sanada) was 15 when they began their 25-year affair—makes it clear that his approval of the book project can be bought, if Metwally assists with an illegal project.
Nothing much comes of that plot, or of any other part of City Of Your Final Destination. This film, finished in 2007, is the first James Ivory directed without longtime producing partner Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005, but it bears the usual hallmarks of Merchant-Ivory productions: It’s tasteful to a fault and the acting is superb, but the script (by longtime Merchant-Ivory partner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, adapting Peter Cameron’s 2002 novel) is stiff and literary, and the action is bloodless. Worse, it’s disconnected. Metwally keeps disappearing from the action; he fails to observe the story’s most significant movements, and he barely even qualifies as a catalyst. He’s a nonentity who undergoes significant change during this story, much of which takes place offscreen and is described later with a passion seen nowhere else in the film. Meanwhile, Linney, Hopkins, and Gainsbourg build restrained, nuanced characters, but have nothing much to do with them in a series of empty disagreements where no one is convinced, until they spontaneously, without explanation, change their minds. The entire project feels like an arid literary exercise first, an experimental stage play second, and a film drama a distant last.