When it takes three screenwriters to adapt a novel for the screen (not to mention two others credited with “additional material”), it’s not surprising that the results are a muddle. Fortunately, veteran actor Brian Cox is on hand to lend much-needed emotional cohesion to the film based on Spanish author Jose Luis Sampedro’s book about a dying septuagenarian who finds his life changed when he encounters his baby grandson for the first time. While Cox’s typically sterling performance is not quite enough to rescue The Etruscan Smile from succumbing to bathos, it goes a long way toward making the film palatable.
The setting for the story, originally featuring Italian characters and largely set in Milan, has been altered by the screenwriters and directors Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun (yes, there are two directors as well; this was clearly a communal effort). Cox plays Rory McNeil, a rugged elderly Scotsman from a remote Hebrides island who travels to San Francisco to seek treatment for an undiagnosed but clearly serious medical condition. There, he’s reunited with his estranged son Ian (JJ Feild, very good but bearing a distractingly strong resemblance to Tom Hiddleston) and meets his wealthy daughter-in-law, Emily (Thora Birch), and baby grandson, Jamie. Although all of his previous behavior leads you to think he would instantly drop-kick a baby across a room, Rory instead immediately melts at the sight of the toddler, whom he treats with intense tenderness.
In all-too-predictable fashion, Rory proves a fish-out-of-water in the cosmopolitan city, disdaining his chef son’s gastronomic cuisine and instead instructing a butcher, “Give me the bloodiest thing you’ve got” and sharing the resulting piece of blood sausage with his toddler grandson. He continues his penchant for skinny-dipping, which gets him into trouble with law enforcement when he tries it in San Francisco Bay. And he wears a kilt to a fancy gala, recoiling from the fancy drinks being served and telling the flustered bartender, “Just give me something that will burn my throat on its way down.”
A little of this Crocodile Dundee-style humor goes a long way, but just as it threatens to become insufferable the film launches into a touching storyline concerning the burgeoning romance between Rory and museum curator Claudia (a charming Rosanna Arquette). Claudia initially reacts coolly to the gruff Scotsman’s unconventional attempts at charm, but she’s eventually won over. Just as their relationship starts to heat up, Rory is given a devastating medical prognosis.
Despite such potentially interesting but insufficiently developed subplots as Rory being the subject of a linguistics study involving his native Gaelic, The Etruscan Smile (the inconsequential title stems from ancient statues that he admires in a museum) traffics in familiar emotional beats. And while it’s clearly intended to humanize the character, Rory’s obsession with his grandson, whom at some point he encourages to climb out of his crib in dangerous fashion, is overdone almost to the point of creepiness. That everyone eventually warms up to the irascible old coot despite his boorish behavior (but at least he’s authentic, the film seems to be arguing) smacks more of narrative contrivance than real life.
That’s not to say that viewers won’t eventually succumb to the character’s charms as well. Cox, currently enjoying a career renaissance thanks to his acclaimed turn in HBO’s buzzy Succession, definitely has the charisma to put the material over, although even he can’t quite make Rory’s romance with the beautiful, considerably younger Claudia fully believable.
It also helps that the film has a terrific ensemble — no doubt partly motivated by the opportunity to work with six-time Academy Award-winning producer Arthur Cohn (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, One Day in September, Black and White in Color) — including Treat Williams, Peter Coyote and Tim Matheson, who bring admirable gravitas to their supporting roles.
Production: Arthur Cohn Productions, Po Valley Productions
Distributor: Lightyear Entertainment
Cast: Brian Cox, JJ Feild, Thora Birch, Peter Coyote, Tim Matheson, Emanuel Cohn, Clive Russell, Josh Stamberg, Treat Williams, Rosanna Arquette
Directors: Mihal Brezis, Oded Binnun
Screenwriters: Michael McGowan, Michael Lali Kagan, Sarah Bellwood
Producer: Arthur Cohn
Executive producers: Renata Jacobs
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Sue Chan
Editor: Roberto Silvi
Composer: Frank Ilfman
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Casting: Kerry Barde, Paul Schnee
Rated R, 107 minutes