Starring Ben Kingsley, Penélope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson, Sonja Bennett, Michelle Harrison, Deborah Harry, Antonio Cupo, Michelle Harrison, Chelah Horsdal, Laura Mennell, Kris Pope and Charlie Rose.
Screenplay by Nicholas Meyer.
Directed by Isabel Coixet.
Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films. 108 minutes. Rated R.
Philip Roth is arguably the most insightful modern chronicler of the stilted sexual lives of highbrow intellectuals – the smashing collision of heightened brain power with the often stupefying irrationality caused by raw carnal desire. Roth has been mining this territory with great success going back to the 60s, when he first arrived in the literary limelight with books like Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint.
Elegy, which is based on a Roth novella called “The Dying Animal,” is a perfect reflection of the Roth template. Older, intellectual man meets beautiful, carefree younger woman and falls in lust. He allows his disconnect, his neuroses and his obsessive over-analysis to potentially screw the whole thing up, refusing to acknowledge that the feeling he is experiencing is love. It is a classic duel between the heart (and sometimes another organ) and the mind – and of course we all know the mind always loses that matchup. Anyone who tries to find rationality in love is certain to be disappointed and/or humiliated.
You can’t find a better term than disappointed for David Kepesh, a New York professor who has been embraced by the literati due to a slight NPR celebrity – he hosts a radio series about literature. Kepesh – who is played with forlorn passion by Ben Kingsley – is cynical, bored, angry, a little misogynist, estranged from his ex-wife and son, self-centered and rather numbed.
He has lost faith in love, a quandary which he discusses often with his best friend (Dennis Hopper) – a married poet who is nearly constantly cheating on his wife (Debbie Harry). At least Kepesh is more honest – he left his wife years ago when he realized he was bored with monogamy.
Years later, he will regularly pick up one of his students (after she finishes his class – which is the remnant of his scruples ). It never lasts long, the young co-ed gets bored with the older prof soon enough, but for a short period he can hold onto something young and passionate. He has held onto one of those affairs, Patricia Clarkson plays a forty-something former student businesswoman who visits every time she is in town for a weekend of strings-free lust.
If he isn’t exactly happy with his lifestyle, at least Kepesh is settled into it and comfortable. Then his world is turned upside down when his latest conquest, a beautiful woman of Latin decent named Consuela – played with fiery charm by Penélope Cruz. The professor is rather shocked that she does not stray away from him eventually – and then even more shocked to find that he does not want her to. Still, his neuroses and inability to share feelings work towards sabotaging the one relationship that he finally wants to explore.
Elegy is important, if for no other reason, than it is helping to resurrect the underrated career of screenwriter Nicholas Meyer. Meyer started out as a best-selling novelist (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror) and then in the 80s became a terrific genre filmmaker, writing and/or directing such impressive films as Time After Time (on my personal list of my ten favorite films ever), the best Star Trek movie (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) and the classic post-apocalyptic TV-movie The Day After. However, since the early 90s, Meyer has sort of faded from sight.
Meyer’s most significant recent credit was also on a film adaptation of a different Philip Roth story, the fascinating-but-flawed 2003 film The Human Stain, which starred Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. That novel was perhaps unfilmable, so while it was an interesting experiment it didn’t quite connect. With Elegy, Meyer’s screenwriting completely does Roth’s fiction justice.
Though towards the end the film gets a little bit melodramatic (which is one of the slight Achilles’ heels of Roth’s body of work in general), in whole Elegy is intelligent and sexy. No matter what the character of David Kepesh thinks, those two things do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 15, 2008.