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When my first novel was published, I suffered from all the delusions about riches and literary fame that inevitably afflict lucky young writers. I didn't yet understand that my book would be only one title in a bookstore full of thousands, that many bookstores wouldn't carry but a single copy of my book or that some wouldn't carry any at all. I had no grasp of literary shelf-life. If you are exceptionally fortunate, your book is in the window and next to the cash register one day, but no matter how fortunate, it's in the remainder bin the next.

Or so it seems. The people who handle your book when you do a signing might as well be looking at a box of apples. "There are no bruises on mine," you want to exclaim, as a casual shopper treats you like a cardboard poster, slides your book back in front of you with a yawn and wanders off to flip the pages of somebody else's dream. Such humbling experiences made me the perfect audience for George Hickenlooper's The Man From Elysian Fields, the story of a struggling novelist who can't get a bookstore customer to pay $3.95 for his book, which was originally listed at $27.

Written by Phillip Jayson Lasker, The Man From Elysian Fields is the story of Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia), a young L.A. writer whose early success has started to curdle. Byron wrote a thriller that garnered nice reviews but only modest sales. The premise of Hitler's Child -- that Eva Braun bore Der Fuhrer ein kindling now grown up in Argentina -- waxes toward the preposterously paranoid, but The New York Times praised the book's prose. Alas, Byron's more ambitious second book about migrant workers is rejected by his publisher for being too serious and too literary. As the movie opens, Byron is having serious difficulty continuing to provide for his wife, Dina (Julianna Margulies), and their young son.

Enter Luther Fox (Mick Jagger). Like Ray Walston's Mr. Applegate in Damn Yankees and Robert Redford's John Cage in Indecent Proposal, Luther has an idea that might help Byron solve his financial difficulties. Luther offers Byron work as a male escort. And the plot leaps into the abyss of the far-fetched when Byron quickly accepts. Mick Jagger may have "Sympathy for the Devil," but other writers who take jobs at newspapers or advertising agencies or at colleges teaching freshman composition, may find themselves with diminishing sympathy for Byron -- who can think of nothing, evidently, save becoming a gigolo.

Byron isn't fated, however, to take aging widows to the ballet. Unlike Giancarlo Giannini in Seven Beauties, he doesn't have to make love to a corpulent Nazi guard. No, he gets to squire around and bed Andrea Alcott (Olivia Williams), a thirtysomething beauty married to a declining older man. Then, wouldn't you know it, Andrea's husband is none other than the legendary Tobias Alcott (the late James Coburn), twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. One thing, of course, leads to another. And pretty soon, Byron and Tobias are working as co-authors, the lion passing his torch to the cub. Tobias claims to be dying, but as he stalks around his mansion, he seems hale enough to kick Byron's butt. Instead, he's the most accepting of fellow, even if he does have an annoying habit of popping into his wife's bedroom just about the time she's getting down to the business of availing herself of Byron's professional services. Sorry about that dear; carry on.

This might all be swell except that Byron doesn't seem to go home for several months, a fact that actually starts to bother Dina after a while. So eventually, as in all devil's bargain stories, Byron has to face the conventional moral music. His wife leaves him, and in developments almost painfully predictable, his various arrangements with the Alcotts don't play out quite the way he hopes, either. In an "aw, come on" conclusion, Dina even starts hiring other escorts from Luther's service.

Hickenlooper has attracted a very capable cast to this project. Jagger is memorably good as Luther, twisting his lithe frame into an appropriate serpentine posture and then doubling back with a human face in a scene where a longtime customer of his own (Anjelica Huston) scorns his efforts to provide her for free what she's always readily bought. The late Coburn is good, too. He exudes the charisma, charm and physicality that we associate with a writer like Hemingway. The picture also benefits from Hickenlooper's feel for atmospherics, nicely executed by Kramer Morgenthau's cinematography.

But this is a cast and crew in search of workable screenplay. Lasker's script portrays with some accuracy the indignities visited upon those who would aspire to write. But he still lives in Hollywood World where a writer can support a family of three on the royalties of a marginally successful novel. That's almost as big a joke as this film's ludicrous plot.

Passing the torch: Young writer Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) picks the brain of (and sleeps with the wife of) literary giant Tobias Alcott (the late James Coburn) in The Man From Elysian Fields.
  • Passing the torch: Young writer Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) picks the brain of (and sleeps with the wife of) literary giant Tobias Alcott (the late James Coburn) in The Man From Elysian Fields.

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