Director Paul Weitz has had something of an eclectic directorial and writing career since he came to prominence back in the ’90s with the massively successful American Pie original. In an alternate timeline this success would have seen him tackle wave after wave of teen comedies involving drugs, sex, alcohol and crusty pies. Thankfully for him (and us) it hasn’t quite panned out that way and in recent times he has gone on to do some impressive works – most notably 2015’s Grandma and Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, the latter of which is perhaps what led him to Bel Canto, a strange hybrid of a film that is both never boring but never quite as moving as it seems.
Julianne Moore stars as world-renowned opera singer Roxanne Coss who is on a world tour when a businessman in South America asks her to perform at a private party. Amongst the guests is Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), a fellow philanthropist who is one of Coss’ biggest fans. The two meet and share stories at the party but soon after she performs, the house where they are enjoying lavish food and drink is raided and the occupants are held hostage by a group of militant guerillas who are demanding the release of their comrades whom they believe are wrongfully imprisoned. The situation worsens and continues to be fraught with danger for over a month, but as temperaments become heightened amongst the militia so does the relationships between the hostages – and that of Coss’ and Hosokawa – become more intimate.
Based on the book of the same name from 2001 by Ann Patchett, Bel Canto is something of a strange beast in that it combines quite a few elements that you wouldn’t quite expect but for the most part, actually works pretty well. It isn’t all plain sailing, though, as such a mix of hefty subject matters does grate in places and, in others, just doesn’t work at all but Weitz manages to keep the juggling act going long enough to make it worthwhile. Indeed, thanks to two fantastic central performances by Julianne Moore – although, as hard as might try, the lip-synching to the operatic vocals just doesn’t work at all – and Ken Watanabe, the film immediately elevated above Lifetime-adjacent territory and both bring heart and soul to proceedings, even when it seems the film is about to derail entirely.
It’s still strange to think about Bel Canto even after seeing it because it is such a wonderfully abnormal film in many ways, but despite all of this it’s actually a decent watch. Granted, most of the details you will forgot immediately after the curtain comes down but thanks to its two leads, large parts of it are charming and engaging and well worth seeking out.