TERRIFIC PERFORMANCES MAKE GLOOMY ‘ELEGY’ WORTHWHILE
BEN KINGSLEY is an aging, celebrated college professor still in thrall to the “carnal aspects of the human comedy” in “Elegy,” a dour film that offers a male-flattering romantic/tragic fantasy for mature intellectuals unable to identify with the young man’s fantasies of Judd Apatow movies.
Adapted from the novel “The Dying Animal,” by Philip Roth, the movie was directed by a woman, Spain’s Isabel Coixet. Even so, the female characters — as smart and independent as they are — seem to exist
primarily to help the professor evolve from selfish citizen of “America the licentious” to humbled penitent on the altar of Eros. These women suffer for the benefit of the man in their life. Breast cancer’s a drag, but imagine being a man who doesn’t understand love.
The performances are terrific, and they make the film worthwhile. Penélope Cruz is Cleopatra-banged Consuela Castillo, a student who — like so many before her — becomes the lover of charismatic Prof. David Kepesh (Kingsley), a minor celebrity because of his frequent appearances on television. (You can tell “Elegy” is aimed at a relatively cultured audience because the TV chat-show host who makes a cameo here is Charlie Rose, not Larry King.)
But Consuela — a Goya fan who poses like “The Naked Maja” for David’s camera — doesn’t take lovemaking casually. She wants a real relationship with the reluctant David, who is embarrassed by his advanced age and afraid to risk himself for “love.” David keeps Consuela’s presence in his life a secret from his other lover, a successful businesswoman (Patricia Clarkson), but he talks about her to his best friend, a married Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (Dennis Hopper). The poet tells him: “You gotta stop worrying about growing old and worry about growing up.” A viewer watching both of these philanderers in action might ask: Why?
“Elegy” was scripted by Nicholas Meyer, a longtime veteran of smart pop entertainment. (He wrote the Sherlock Holmes novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” and directed “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”) Lately, Meyer has turned to theoretically more serious fare; “Elegy” is his second Roth adaptation, after “The Human Stain” (2003), in which aging classics professor Anthony Hopkins has an affair with a younger janitor played by — get this — Nicole Kidman.
Step by step and moment by moment, Meyer’s screenplay is convincing; the characters are not far-fetched, nor are the dramatic developments unlikely. (Peter Sarsgaard plays the seemingly strait-laced son who resents his randy father.) But as the movie progresses through its stations of the existentialist’s cross, with the music of Beethoven, Satie and Chet Baker providing melancholy accompaniment to the professor’s increasing awareness of his loneliness, it begins to try one’s patience. Apparently, Coixet wants us to believe the professor has come to regret the bad choices he made in his life; instead, we expect him to make like Sinatra and bust out singing: “I did it my way.”
“Elegy” is playing exclusively at Malco’s Ridgeway Four.
— John Beifuss, 529-2394
Professor Ben Kingsley is interested in more than the intellectual development of student Penélope Cruz in “Elegy.”