By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
After seeing a bevy of summer blockbusters the movie equivalent of cigarette-smoking teenagers exchanging profanities in a littered 7-11 parking lot, director Isabel Coixet’s “Elegy” seems an artistic oasis. At last, a quiet dialogue with adults…intelligent ones, no less. Based on Philip Roth’s “The Dying Animal,” never mind that it’s all about sex.
Well, not really. Just had to woo you out of that dimly lighted parking lot for a bit. Truth is, the exaggeration is just slight. Tuning into the male libido some forty years after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth’s protagonist is now not quite as obsessed with sex as he is concerned with it. Uh, O.K., maybe still obsessed, but in a 60-something sort of way.
Not that you’d know it. A literary lion at Columbia, Professor David Kepesh is as comfortably urbane in front of a classroom as he is on the “Charlie Rose Show” or at the microphone of his book review program on NPR. Exquisitely portrayed by Ben Kingsley, he is the epitome of culture, actually the acknowledged authority on it. He lives well.
But of course, like the Tin Man, he’s missing a part. It isn’t what he left behind many years ago when he divorced because “it just wasn’t for me.” And it isn’t necessarily the disheveled relationship with his doctor-son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), though he could do without the recurrent 2 a.m. phone calls bleating of abandonment. Nope, it’s tougher.
It’s the sort of crisis that only a character drawn by a literary genius can agonize over, the experience limited solely by the creativity and insight of his creator. It scratches at the ceiling of understanding, armed with every bit of philosophy, literature and psychology the writer can conjure. It is an author’s big game hunt. Whither goest this mortal animal?
David keeps much of this quandary to himself, managing to sublimate the anxiety in an intricately woven shield of distinguished letters and criticism. It’s the perfect occupation if you’re hoping to coax a new co-ed into your lair every other semester or so. After all, he is, to quote the jaded as well as the impressionable, quite fascinating.
Thus it only follows that M.F.A. candidate Consuela Castillo, beautifully etched in every sense of the term by Penelope Cruz, might feel the same. But not so fast, for several reasons. This one is bonnier than all who preceded her. But most of all, while Dr. Kepesh doesn’t quite realize it, she arrives at the point of his watershed.
Or is she the cause of it…the catalyst? That’s to be figured out later. In any case, we’re going to have a love affair here, dear reader, a good one, a well written amour full of romantic filigree, joy, foreboding…the whole deal. There’ll be knowing looks, forlorn glances and slight little expressions from these two great actors that spell volumes.
The astonishing thing is, of all the film’s aspects you may perhaps find problematic, the age disparity of this first rate May-September affaire de coeur is the least incredible. Credit author Roth. His heart-is-a-lonely-hunter gist, smartly interpreted by screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, invites acceptance. Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley do the rest.
It isn’t so much the chemistry, though that’s certainly a part of it. Rather, it’s the sheer brilliance and technical skill of these two thespians. While Jeanne-Claude Larrieu’s sensitive cinematography imparts emotional movement in what would otherwise seem rather confined quarters, Cruz and Kingsley spawn a dynamic enthusiasm.
Estimable supporting portrayals complement the scenario. In a one hundred-eighty degree reverse of type, Dennis Hopper is terrifically warm as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet George O’Hearn. The voice of reason, he is David’s racquetball opponent and chief confidante. Peter Sarsgaard is perfectly petulant as David’s son and, perhaps, conscience.
Also wonderfully telling by way of her character’s development is Patricia Clarkson as Carolyn. The first—and now conquest emeritus—of Professor Kepesh’s doubtless long line of awestruck young ladies, the notably independent businesswoman has enjoyed two decades of all touch but no-feel interludes with David. It has suited them both. Until now.
All bets are off with the incursion of Consuela Castillo. The unflappable scholar and critic finds himself in new territory, uncertain how to proceed in the face of such classical splendor. He is smitten, confused by the ideal, beauty being truth and all that. While she seems to truly care for him, we wonder if a cynical moth dares chance his inner butterfly.
It is ennobling and civilizing to ponder at seat’s edge, of all things, what turns next this literate, mystery of a love story will take. A respite from the special effects and cacophony of mass produced diversion, the hand-crafted, filmic poetry of “Elegy” assures viewers a movie-going choice they’ll have no reason to lament.
“Elegy,” rated R, is a Samuel Goldwyn Company release directed by Isabel Coixet and stars Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. Running time:108 minutes