The contrapuntal virtue of "A Late Quartet" is that it is both highbrow metaphor and soap opera. A world-famous foursome, specialists in Beethoven's late string quartets, comes apart at the seams after its central player, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
The violist, Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener), doesn't want to go on without her father figure; her husband, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), allows his long-simmering resentment about playing second violin rise to the surface; first violinist and pathological perfectionist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) dismisses Robert's concerns but does start sleeping with his and Juliette's daughter, Alexandra (Imogene Poots). Peter, the one with the real problem, is left to watch his quartet of 25 years fray like an old horsehair bow.
It's a rich idea: Professional musicians, devoted to harmonic perfection, spinning out of control -- something you wish that director Yaron Zilberman had exercised a bit more of, while also drawing a bit more blood out of the more talented members of his cast. At the same time, he could have used a bit less out of Poots, who gives one of the more annoying turns in recent memory.
Granted, the movie needs a bit of juice, although watching Walken deliver such a measured performance creates tension enough -- one always expects something wacky. You don't get it, but you do get a remarkable intensity out of Ivanir, who has no problem pushing back against the formidable Hoffman -- or Keener, either, although she seems a bit rudderless here, like a lot of the film.
Sophisticated, adult movies are rare enough, even more so movies about the classical music world, which is fertile dramatic territory. "A Late Quartet" takes advantage of its context and the inherent contrast -- the eternal beauty of Beethoven, the eternal dissatisfaction of human beings. The upshot, though, is a sense of opportunity slightly squandered.
PLOT When the eldest member of a venerable string quartet becomes ill, the composition of the group itself comes unraveled.
RATING R (language, sexuality, a little fiddling about)
BOTTOM LINE Engaging, intelligent, but direction doesn't quite live up to a first-rate cast.