WRITERS ON SCREEN: The Man from Elysian Fields or Can Failure Make a Writer a Better Man? Pt. 1

If you can’t find true love, at least you can find symmetry. Mick Jagger as Luther Fox,  in     The Man from Elysian Fields

the-man-from-elysian-fieldsNo, The Man from Elysian Fields is not a spy story, although it would be a good title for one preferably written by John Le Carre. The Man from Elysian Fields is a little gem of a movie that was released in 2001 tenderly directed by the late George Hickenlooper (Factory Girl) from a script that has depth, humor, fully developed characters and tackles something not often seen on film: personal failure of the privileged white male.

 There is something so touching about the way the script guides us through writer Byron Tiller’s career collapse without pity or sentimentality as it constantly reminds us that men are not immune to the dream of true romance and all its redemptive implications. This is down to writer Philip Jayson Lasker’s grasp of his subject matter, his craft and his knowledge of humor as a means to reveal humanity.

There is very little about Lasker on the web apart from his credits as a writer for such 70’s TV sit-com favorites as Barney Miller, Mama’s Family and the Golden Girls. It is clear The Man from Elysian Fields benefits mightily from Lasker’s time well spent writing for such ground-breaking comedy series. I’m just thinking of some of Bea Arthur’s one-liners right now and taking a laugh break. Ah, that was good.What Jayson Lasker really does well with The Man from Elysian Fields is to find what the New York Times review called “the right balance between humor and melancholy.”

Unfortunately, Andy Garcia as Byron Tiller and Julianna Margulies as his wife are the only two in a brilliant cast who have a consistently hard time delivering the jokes. They don’t seem to realize this is a dark comedy, with some hysterical Bea Arthur worthy lines spoken mostly by Mick Jagger as the man who owns Elysian Fields, Luther Fox.

Mick Jagger as Luther Fox (The Man from Elysian Fields, 2001)


It is Luther Fox we first encounter through world-weary voice-over narration as he recounts how he first met Byron Tiller. We the audience subsequently meet Byron as he strolls into a bookstore in Pasadena hoping to rekindle the feelings he had as a new author only to find his novel (once priced at $25) now  in the remainder bin for $3.99.

Dejected, Byron heads for the local bar, where he is apparently a regular, and runs into Luther, dapper and well-groomed to well within an inch of his life; the complete cosmopolite, albeit a  little frayed around the edges. This first encounter is brief but telling. Tiller has desperation wafting off him like cheap cologne and Fox smells a familiar fragrance. He gives Tiller his card: Elysian Fields, an escort service for the mature wealthy woman who wants an evening out with someone with a brain and a fully functioning tool kit. Tiller says he’s not interested. He’s a writer, an artist. He may only have lint in his pockets, but he’s got his integrity and a wife. Oh, and by the way Luther has read Tiller’s novel, and he liked it.

The only idea that’s bad is one that doesn’t work. – Mick Jagger as Luther Fox

 Too bad Byron’s second novel is not getting any traction. Despite his art and his integrity, a sense of impending doom is bearing down on him. The fact that his wife has worked to support him while he was writing his latest masterpiece has placed even more pressure on him because they have a young son, little Nathanial Hawthorne, with whom the wife wants to spend more time and golly does she want so gosh darn much for her hubby to be a success.                                                                                     

Julianna Margulies and Andy Garcia as Dena and Byron Tiller (The Man from Elysian Fields, 2001)

I’m telling you this chick is way too perky and way too supportive.

So, when Tiller’s visit to his old editor at Little Brown ends in Tiller begging the editor to help him, because he’s broke, the editor tells Tiller he should use his desperation to his advantage, because all great novels were written in desperation. Of course, this sends Tiller back to the bar where he runs into Luther Fox again. When Tiller asks Fox if he isn’t shamed by the way he makes a living, Fox tells him, “No, poverty does that.”

 Of course Tiller relents. He has a family to support and he needs to feel as if he is succeeding at something. This brings us to one of my unanswered and unanswerable question about writers: are they better off without the responsibility of a family? This could be a question directed to any artist of any medium, male or female, but this question did present itself subtextually in this film, which is another reason I find this film so enjoyable.

 As the daughter of a successful and influential musician I am a casualty of the sacrifices that must be made in the name of commitment to craft. It’s a question that can’t really be answered I guess. Somebody’s got to buy the groceries and somebody’s got to make the dinner and it’s easier, while in the midst of the creative process, not  having to do both. Tiller does not have to do both, but he does have to do the former, that is provide not just to give his wife Dena a break, which is important, but he needs self-belief: without it he’s not just broke, but broken both as a man and as a writer.

 Be careful of a woman who accepts you just as you are, because it’s a sure sign she settles for too little. — James Coburn as Tobias Alcott

Luther Fox is fox by name and fox by nature. He gets Tiller. His first assignment for him is an opera date with Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams) the wife of the multiple Pulitzer prize-winning author, Tobias Alcott, whom Tiller counts among his influences and inspirations. Olivia Williams, always a revelation, almost comes near her absolutely flawless performance in Polanski’s The Ghostwriter, which I have written about in a previous blog posting. I encourage you to read it.

Olivia Williams as Andrea Alcott (The Man from Elysian Fields, 2001)

 Williams’ ability to look perpetually offended, heart-broken and confused simultaneously makes the film’s dénouement sting like a sucker punch. James Coburn, in one of his last and probably best films before his death in 2000 knows his way around Tobias Alcott, a totally self-obsessed, pampered and spoiled baby-man rendered impotent artistically, therefore physically andcompletely clueless about the connection. He’s old, worn-out, ill and dying, but he knows he’s got one more good one in him.

By the time Byron Tiller appears on the scene Tobias has just put the finishing touches on his magnum opus and wants Byron to edit it for him. Tobias is Southern California cool with Tiller shtupping his wife for cash. Why should she be denied sexual gratification just because her considerably older husband is no longer up to the task? Why shouldn’t Tobias help a struggling writer while paying for his wife’s pleasure? You’d think that Tiller would use his writer’s eye to see that maybe it gets lonely being the wife of a writer, but Dena Tiller, as nauseatingly perky as she may be, will soon remind him.