This movie is like an abstract work of art: throw a bunch of images up there all at once. Perhaps some of them are connected, perhaps not. Let the viewer decide which to focus on, and that will say as much about the viewer as about the artist.
Though this is not strictly a linear story, the plot line goes something like this: A retired orchestra conductor, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is enjoying a luxurious Swiss resort, along with his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), and his best friend his whole adult life, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). We open with a nightclub-type band playing a song that doesn't subsequently relate to anything.
Mr. Ballinger, almost always dressed in suit and tie, is so renowned that an emissary from the Queen of England comes to ask him to come out of retirement to conduct one of his most famous works, an original composition, at a special program at Buckingham Palace. Mr. Ballinger declines.
Right after we learn that Ballinger's daughter Lena and Boyle's son are married to each other, Lena learns that he is dumping her for another woman. When Mick demands of his visiting son what could possibly possess him to do such a thing, he laconically replied of his new (younger) girlfriend, “She's good in bed.” His father tells him he's an idiot. Lena is understandably completely distraught, but learning of his reasoning is a low blow to the ego, indeed. She has a nightmare sequence about the blatant sexuality of her ex with his new girlfriend. Later she lashes out at her father, while both are enjoying a mud bath in the massage room, about his serial infidelities, and his inattention to her growing up because of his exalted career. He doesn't argue with her. But the Queen's emissary returns to beg him again, and he declines again, “for personal reasons.”
It seems Miss Universe is also staying at the resort. The exotic beauty once visits the spa, and decides to get in the pool where Fred and Mick are sitting---completely disrobed! When one of the staff members tries to tell Mr. Boyle that he has a visitor, he replies, “Can't you see that we're in the middle of a lifetime idyllic situation here?”
Fred and Mick take long walks in the beautiful countryside, where they talk to each other about...how much of a struggle it is, at their age, to maintain a good urination stream. An American actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), also a guest at the resort, says he is studying the other clients in preparation for an important role. And then shows up dressed as Adolph Hitler, complete with the short mustache and signature hair style. All the residents stare at him. He decides that maybe he ought to consider another type of role.
A Buddhist monk sits serenly on the lawn, cross-legged, appararently spreading a rumor that he will soon be levitating. Fred and Mick are sitting at dinner, taking bets on when that silent couple at the table in front of them is going to actually speak to each other. Then Fred and Mick take a walk, talking about some girl they both had a crush on 60 years ago, and they spot the same silent couple at dinner fornicating in the woods. Plenty of accompanying vocals, but still no words.
Mick, a successful Director, is working on one last screenplay, but his small informal acting troupe seems to be accomplishing little. The aging diva whom he hired (Jane Fonda) finally flies in, only to tell him off and quit. There's a hooker who hangs around the spa, and one time Mick hires her to just walk hand in hand with her for a while, like he did, once, with that girl 60 years ago.
Yes, it's a series of seemingly random images, but they all add up, sort of, to a tableau that sometimes makes more sense than others, and sometimes is more engaging than others....like life itself.
Questions for Discussion:
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas