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Brawling over Beethoven

It's autumn. You're wearing a cozy sweater. Having rejected the Kindle, you carry an actual book around with you to pass time while you're waiting for this or that appointment or train. You're re-reading Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. You're drawn, like an old-fashioned, voodoo-hypnotized zombie, into the arthouse theater. Something's calling you. You don't know what it is, but you hear the beckoning voice in your head. It murmurs, seductively, "Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are in this movie about the various troubles that befall a successful string quartet in Manhattan during the cold months when the clothing is at its most attractive. Everything happens in book-lined apartments with carved wood architectural elements. Grab some hot tea from concession. Maybe one of those fair-trade chocolate bars that sources from cocoa plantations that don't employ child slaves. You like that with your tea. Christopher Walken is in it, too, as a gentlemanly cellist. Come seeeeeeee..."

So you do that. And you discover that you have walked into the year's most NPR-donatin', philharmonic-subscribin', book-learnin' soap opera. And you are glad.

You are glad because, you know what? Soap is populist. I like it. You like it. We all like it. You think you're watching Downton Abbey because you're refined? You're not. You're watching it to see what happens to Lady Mary after that guy drops dead in the middle of sexing her. The concentrated pile-up of secrets, betrayals, resentments, infidelities, seething fury, breakups and hissed public meltdowns are a pleasurable source of heightened reality, serving the same fantasy function as impromptu musical numbers and spaceship battles. So when Keener and Hoffman fight over her chilly remove and his sexual misjudgments, when Walken discovers early in the film he has the beginnings of Parkinson's disease, when Imogen Poots, as Hoffman and Keener's young adult daughter, begins a secret sexual liaison with... well, I won't spoil it, I don't want the arthouse fanboys to start sending me death threats. Those guys are brutal and they don't play.

As relations between the quartet's members (which also includes character actor Mark Ivanir) strain to the point of breaking up the band, as reconciliation seems less and less probable, as the film manages to get you worried about whether or not they'll even make it through the Beethoven piece they've been half-practicing for much of the running time, as Hoffman suffers the psychic damage of a lifetime spent as -- insert gasping noise here -- second violinist, as life analogs to classical music collect in sillier and sillier but still really tastefully stacked heaps, you'll find yourself relaxing into the handsomely appointed pleasures of its ultimately inconsequential existence. And you won't hate yourself when it's over. Too much, anyway.


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