Rated R, 113 min. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Starring Ben Kingsley, Penélope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 22, 2008
Old age is creeping up on David Kepesh (Kingsley), something that this New Yorker has managed to outrun until recently. In his 60s, with enviable work as a cultural critic and part-time academic, Kepesh remains strong in body and mind, but his illusory island of self-preservation begins to crumble once he becomes sexually involved with Consuela Castillo (Cruz). She, like many of his conquests, is an admiring student, many years his junior. Consuela is not unlike the others who annually fall sway to his lust, yet there is a quality about her that stirs Kepesh’s dormant desires for love and commitment, an awakening he finds all the more disturbing for having believed such impulses to have been vanquished decades ago, when he chose to leave his wife and son. Kepesh is a recurring character in Philip Roth’s fiction, and Elegy is based on his short novel The Dying Animal. The change in the title alone provides a sense of the movie’s tonal shift from Roth’s apologia for the randy American male to director Coixet’s more humanist perspective. It’s a feat that Coixet (My Life Without Me, The Secret Life of Words) and her exquisite cast pull off with knowing aplomb and subtle skill. Kingsley and Cruz bring great depth and sensitivity to what could have easily devolved into an awkward May-December romance. Kingsley delivers a confident portrayal of a man who thinks he has kept all emotional entanglement at bay and has the cloaking bombast to prove it, while Cruz’s depiction of a young woman at various stages of emotional maturation furthers her reputation as one of the most versatile actresses working today. Curiously, much of the movie’s depth comes by way of the supporting cast: Clarkson as Kepesh’s longtime sexual partner sans strings, Sarsgaard as the son whose fury over his father’s departure does not diminish his need to confide in Kepesh and seek his consolation, and Hopper as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Kepesh’s best – and only – friend. For the first time in a long while, it’s possible to see Hopper exercising his craft as an actor instead of merely trading on his reputation, and it’s a supporting actor turn worth remembering come awards season. To some extent, the pleasures derived from Elegy are due to the timing of its mid-August release at the end of a ceaseless summer of superheroic dramaturgy. Yet such thinking diminishes the case for this smart and self-deprecating story about love and mortality: It’s merely a winter’s tale told with a summer’s palette. (See Screens feature " The Chaos of Eros" for more on the film.)