Wednesday, September 03, 2008


David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is a man who has tried life the way that society says we are supposed to live it, found that it did not suit him, and had the courage to make the changes in his life that were crucial to the truth of his nature. He teaches college literature courses and critiques books and plays for television and radio, plays racquetball and has coffee with his best friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper) - each time at the same table in the same coffee shop - but has no significant relationships with women. He beds the elusive Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) from time to time, and the relationship is understood to exist for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire only, though their mannerisms toward one another hint at a larger complexity and a larger sense of security, especially on Carolyn’s part.

David lives comfortably - both literally and figuratively - though the comfort comes at the price of having a son with whom his relationship could be described charitably as estranged and of spending most nights alone; and he seems to know the bounds of what he is capable of doing - when his son asks later in the film how he knows that marriage is a prison, David replies by saying that he has served time, even though he knows that it will hurt his son to hear such a statement about his mother. (If you noticed this and other quirky one-liners in the trailer and thought that you were in for something of a dramedy, then I'm sorry to say that you're in for a major disappointment.)

And yet, the way that David evaluates women - heard through his inner monologue while his eyes scan the faces in his classroom as courses resume each semester - seems to betray his preference for avoiding long-term relationships with them - almost as though he might try it again if he ever found someone who yearned for his body in an animal way and could also fit comfortably as she is into the kind of life that he has made for himself as he enters - reluctantly, don’tcha know? - old age.

And so, of course, just such a woman comes along - one Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz), a student in David’s class, yet one who is other, in the sense that she is, in fact, one of his students, and yet perhaps not like any of his other students at all. She is impressed by all of the culture with which David has adorned himself in his apartment, and he is impressed with her breasts. If that seems a bit crude, it should be noted that, for all of his scarves and art references, David is, at bottom, a chap who would prefer to be known for the way he forks, rather than the way he spoons, so to speak.

Thus begins their love affair...and I’ve lost all train of thought as to what I wanted to say about this film - though it had something to do with the way the story tries to reconcile the uniquely human notion of sexual desire with the almost pathological need to remain at a minimum distance from the object of that desire, a sliver of theme echoed in the title of the novel and the film. I thought I liked it, but now I’m not so sure. It was remarkably well shot by Jean-Claude Larrieu, a cinematographer who clearly knows his way around a lighting rig and whose oeuvre prior to Elegy consists almost entirely of French films (including one of the segments in the delightful ménage-a-shorts Paris, Je T’Aime). The acting also was quite strong, particularly Kingsley’s work with facial expressions and nuanced voice-over. Cruz was solid, too, as were Hopper and Clarkson.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because of the subtle way that the story develops David and Consuela as characters through the first two acts, except to say that one can glimpse the possibility of a pretty satisfying ending as act two comes to a close. Unfortunately, we must bear witness to act three, in which the story lurches desperately off course and nearly derails. The film is based on the novel The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth, one of those literary heavyweights I have somehow managed not to read yet - so I can’t say whether the ending in the film is true to the book or whether it was substituted for the book’s ending by mouth-breathing half-wits. The novel was adapted for the screen by Nicholas Meyer, who aslo wrote The Human Stain, another film based on a Roth novel. Meyer’s filmography also includes, I’m sorry to say, a number of Star Trek movies, including the insufferable one with the whales and the mom from 7th Heaven. I tend to think, though, that the third act of Elegy was a tacked-on contrivance.

Without having read the novel, I can’t say whether the filmmakers made a bad choice in rewriting the third act, whether they mauled the end of the novel, or whether they were working with substandard source material from the outset; either way, the third act is a letdown, one that seriously mars what is otherwise two-thirds of a really good movie.

(And yes, I know it's a bit late to be posting a review of this movie, but it's actually going to hold for another week, which I would have found shocking except for the fact that all but one of the films I thought we were going to open this weekend have pushed back at least another week and the one we are getting - Baghead - only has two shows a day!)


Ryan Micheel said...

Tacked-on ending pretty much nails it. Which is a shame, because Isabel Coixet has previously dealt with that subject in a far more thoughtful and nuanced way. There was also an uneasy shift in tone for the last section.

I guess my question is the "good performances"? Ben Kingsley wasn't terrible. I'm still recovering from War, Inc. Penelope Cruz is an interesting case study because she is great in the Spanish Language and absolutely atrocious in English. Even though she is improving in American Films, she is also a problem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I will give you Dennis Hopper and the always reliable Patricia Clarkson, they were as you said, solid. Peter Sarsgaard and Debbie Harry were also good, even if they were underused.

Richard said...

The actors in this film are amazing. Its’ a film I could watch again and again just because of the performances. Dennis Hopper is great. I wish the others would take a leaf out of Hopper's book and get their voices recorded Navtones so I could have them on my GPS. I just got Hopper's voice and other cool celebrities as the voice on my GPS at It's awesome and I recommend it, just like this film.