As he explains in Seymour: An Introduction, Ethan Hawke had the great fortune to be seated next to Seymour Bernstein at a dinner party. Best known as an Oscar- and Tony-nominated actor, Hawke is a modern multi-hyphenate who has also authored a couple of books, co-authored screenplays (with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy) and directed several movies and plays.
Lately, however, Hawke tells us that he was struggling with "Why I do what I do." Not only did Hawke discover Bernstein's wisdom and insight to be helpful with his own artistic quandaries, Hawke found in Bernstein the subject of his next documentary. Earlier in his life, Bernstein had been a brilliant and highly praised concert pianist, but had given up performing at the age of 50 due to stage fright and his dislike of artistic commercialism, and took up teaching full-time — the better to spread his ideas about music and life. The two artists took a shine to each other, and voilà: A documentary was born.
Hawke chose his subject well; Bernstein is indeed an intriguing master and paragon of authenticity. (Perhaps it's at this level that the film's title has any connection beyond the obvious with its original source, a J.D. Salinger novella of the same name, phoniness being a frequent concern of Salinger's characters.) Footage shows Bernstein one-on-one with his students and in master classes, and talking with former students, among them Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for The New York Times.
We get some glimpses into the arts world in the latter half of the past century. All the while, with little intercession by Hawke, Bernstein delivers philosophical gems about how music and life will interact in never-ending cycles of fulfillment. However, more direct involvement by Hawke would have been welcome. So many follow-up questions are left unasked. The film is at its liveliest when the filmmaker and his subject discuss the twofold presence of human monstrosity and artistic gifts, or the human propensity to value talent over craft. It's lovely that Hawke shares this guru of sorts with the world, but if we really want to know what makes Bernstein's inner metronome tick, that's not to be found in this movie.♦