Dir: George Hickenlooper. US. 2001. 105mins

The trials and tribulations of an underachieving novelist provide the basis of The Man From Elysian Fields, a modern morality tale that sustains a dry, playful wit and tight narrative for its first hour before beginning to unravel. Conventional closing stages fail to deliver on the promise of the early scenes and lead to a mild sense of disappointment. Spirited dialogue and appealing performances remain the hallmarks of a film that offers civilised entertainment for an older, upmarket audience. The strong star cast should ensure a degree of box-office appeal but it may not be enough to translate into extensive theatrical sales for what it a relatively tough marketing challenge. Ancillary markets should provide much more buoyant prospects for a very likable affair.

Making the most of a still potent, shaggy dog charm, Andy Garcia plays Byron Tiller, a novelist and dreamer who continues to pursue his career despite the indifference of the masses and the skepticism of publishers. His last tome Hitler's Child is currently gracing the remainder tables and his latest opus on migrant workers is unlikely to see the inside of a hard cover. Encouraged by the unconditional love of his wife Dena (Margulies), he dutifully heads to his office every day to write but is now on the verge of insolvency, unable to provide for her or their child. Rejected by his former employer and his unsympathetic father-in-law, he meets the elegant Luther Fox (Jagger), an effete Englishman who runs an exclusive escort agency called Elysian Fields. He offers Tiller work, promising it can be temporary until his finances improve. Thus, he begins to deceive his wife and spend his nights escorting the beautiful Andrea Allcott (Williams) to the opera and the theatre. Allcott just happens to be the wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Tobias Allcott (Coburn) and soon Tiller is neglecting his wife even more as he is drawn into their lives and Allcott's struggle to complete what will be his final novel.

On a surface level, The Man From Elysian Fields works as a good yarn where the audience is engaged by the characters and intrigued as to where the story may take them. The sharp, sophisticated dialogue is a bonus and the quality of the performances is often a welcome surprise. Jagger, in particular, is an absolute delight. Always impeccably dressed and imperious, his silky smooth businessman is invested with a world-weary campness and hints of the late, great Dirk Bogarde. He handles his droll dialogue with aplomb and brings some genuine emotion to the scenes with longtime paramour Anjelica Huston when she laughs off his earnest declaration of love and devotion. One sees the hopes of a battered romantic wither in his eyes.

Jagger is so good here that you regret the few acting roles he has tackled in recent years and forgive him completely for Freejack. There are equally pleasing performances from James Coburn as the roistering novelist who gives his blessing to his wife's new playmate and from the underused Julianna Margulies as the wife who becomes the casualty of her husband's ambition and desperation.

After the first hour, the offbeat gives way to the predictable and our hero is made to pay for his indiscretions and hopeless naivety. Sentimentality creeps in around the edges and the observations on life and love, loss and second chances begin to sound a little hollow and trite. The story strains for effect and some meaningful statement on the supreme ironies of the human condition.

As the wit falters, you also begin to question some of the developments that have been taken at face value until now and ask whether Tiller would so readily have betrayed the woman he loved and sold his soul for the chance of financial security and artistic recognition. The fact that you ask such questions is a testimony to some of the qualities in Jayson Philip Lasker's screenplay. It's just a shame he couldn't encourage the suspension of your disbelief for the whole film.

Prod co: Elysian, LLC.
Int'l sales: Shoreline Entertainment
Exec prod: Norm Waitt
Prod: Donald Zuckerman
Scr: Jayson Philip Lasker
Cinematography: Kramer Morgenthau
Prod des: Frankie Diago
Ed: Michael Brown
Mus: Anthony Marinelli
Main cast: Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Julianne Margulies, Olivia Williams, James Coburn, Anjelica Huston.