Review: 33 Variations
Thu Mar 12 2009
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
FOREARMED IS FORLORN Ailing Fonda, right, gets physical therapy.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Time has not withered Jane Fonda: The 71-year-old film star stands tall and erect, radiating strength in the opening scenes of 33 Variations. That recognizable voice—burnished steel dipped in honey—never quavers or breaks as her character, musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt, plans her travel to Germany to study Ludwig van Beethoven’s notebooks and uncover the rationale behind his Diabelli Variations. But such A-list dignity soon becomes a liability, since wither is what Brandt must do in order to lend her arc pathos and grit. She suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Fonda seems more concerned with looking fabulous than delivering the textured, full-bodied performance that Moiss Kaufman’s underwritten play desperately needs.
Fonda’s physical stateliness stands in stark contrast to Zach Grenier’s Beethoven, who appears in cross-cut scenes as an equally degenerating but vital force. Grenier spits, bellows and howls his way through the showier role, courting charges of overacting but at least giving us some blood-and-guts acting to watch. His famous costar, by contrast, is overly tentative and restrained, never persuasive as an obsessed scholar fending off death.
In dramatic terms, 33 Variations is cultured, balanced, humane—and dull. Kaufman has done his research and connects the dots, but forgot to write fully rounded or surprising characters. The theme-and-variations analogy between the titular composition and the course of Brandt’s disease—and her evolving relationship with her daughter (Mathis)—is schematically neat but inert. That leaves us with Beethoven’s rapturous music, which stands the test of time best of all.
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