If you long to see Christopher Walken play a character other than a wacky eccentric who speaks with a weird cadence, get yourself to the cinema to see A Late Quartet. But beware: This is the most interesting part of the movie, despite its intriguing premise and stellar cast. A Late Quartet remains earthbound when it should soar.
Walken plays Peter Mitchell, the eldest member of a world-renowned string quartet called the Fugue, which has played together for the past 25 years. But when the quartet gathers to rehearse for its upcoming season, his fingers cramp while playing his cello, and the problem is soon diagnosed as the early stages of Parkinson's disease. Peter announces to the group that he intends to quit, unleashing a rash of internecine conflicts that had heretofore remained beneath the surface.
First violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) is an unyielding perfectionist who makes honest discussion impossible. Second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and violist Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) are a married couple. All of them have ties going back to their student days at Juilliard, where Peter was one of their teachers. Egos vie for attention amid the shakeup, and a marriage frays under the stress. Add a complicating factor created by up-and-coming violinist Alexandra Gelbart, who is the daughter of Robert and Juliette and has issues of her own.
Most of the drama simmers but rarely boils. Perhaps the film provides an authentic look at New York's music aesthetes, but it isn't terribly engaging. Only Walken creates a character with a rich emotional core that manages to convey complicated feelings. The others seem too refined to allow personal dramas to disrupt their equilibrium. Not helping matters is the overly dark camerawork, which causes certain sets to look as though the usually outstanding cinematographer Frederick Elmes might have misplaced his light meter.
Any artist who has worked as part of a group is sure to find a certain resonance in the offstage tussles of A Late Quartet, but there's too little going on to sustain other types of viewers.