The idea of bringing together Frank Langella and Elliott Gould in a movie sounds utterly delicious with possibility—like an old-school, indie version of the much-touted ‘90s teaming of De Niro and Pacino in Heat. Langella might be flying high off the fumes of his first Oscar nod for Frost/Nixon, but he’s a character actor through and through, which suggests that a teaming between he and Gould, Robert Altman’s greatest everyguy, would allow Langella’s laconic bemusement to terrifically bounce off of Gould’s signature hangdog vibrancy.
Sadly, The Caller, the second feature from director Richard Ledes, doesn’t allow its leading men the luxury of their legacies, instead forcing a wan quasi-thriller in the space where a laidback character study should be. Langella plays Jimmy, a corporate whistle blower being chased by goons (but not too swiftly it would seem, as he has plenty of time to read in Central Park at will) who hires Gould’s bird-watching private eye to spy on him and report back to him, with Jimmy employing one of those Dick Tracy-like voice distorters. (To the movie’s credit, Gould even has a joke where that’s brought up.) Along the way we’re treated to flashbacks of Jimmy’s boyhood in France during wartime, and flirtations with a lounge singer (Laura Harring) and a young girl (Anabel Sosa) he bonds with over fairy tales, all of which inform his unusual decision to have himself traced.
The widescreen compositions are occasionally arresting, and you’ve got to hand it to any filmmaker that would even consider these two guys for these roles. And that sense of aging actors trying to assert their place is evident in some scenes, most poignantly when Langella tries in vain to find a place to smoke outside of a restaurant (in a ‘70s picture, they would have had smoke rings blowing out of the ears at the table). And when they play together, both actors are a treat, offering restrained, introspective portrayals for two actors known to be hammy (though a survey of their works in total reveals that to be a fallacy). But the “thriller” aspects always seem to horn in like a boorish drunk at a party, and the cat-and-mouse goings-on are simply not original enough to warrant the attention. And your mind will certainly go back to the aforementioned Heat at its conclusion, which it eerily mirrors, only you’ll wish it had a fraction of the impact. The leads have strong bones, but the movie has a case of acute arthritis.