Older-man/younger-woman: Elegy takes a fresh look
August 28, 2008
Ben Kingsley, who can play just about any role, seems to be especially effective playing slimy intellectuals. Elegy is a film that could have been made for him, although by the time its over, Penelope Cruz has slipped away with it and transformed Kingsleys character in the process. Its nicely done.Kingsley plays David Kepesh, a professor of literature whose classroom manner seems designed to seduce the young student of his choice from each new class. He narrates the film and is not shy about describing his methods. To stay out of trouble, he waits until the semester is over and the grades have been given, and then throws a party at his book- and art-filled apartment, where he singles out his prey and dazzles her with flattering insights, intellectual bravado and an invitation to meet sometime just for coffee or a drink and conversation, you know.His target this semester is the lithesome Consuela, played by Penelope Cruz as a Cuban-American who is old enough to know better but discerning enough to see that there may really be something to old Kepesh after all. The professor appoints himself her tutor to all the mysteries of life, art, New York, music and sex. And for a while they mesh and enjoy each other.But David grows obsessed with jealousy, convinced Consuela is seeing someone else younger, of course, and more handsome and virile. He even accidentally drops in at a dance he knows shes attending to check up on her. His distrust spoils everything because she cannot abide not being trusted.And then the movie takes a dramatic turn, which I will not reveal, even though it contains all the deepest emotions and real feelings of the story. And in these scenes, Cruz is quietly powerful and very true. You understand why the Spanish director, Isabel Coixet, chose Cruz instead of, say, a 19-year-old. An actress needs depth and the experience of life to play these scenes, and Cruz has them.The film is based on a novel by Philip Roth, who has just about exhausted my desire to read his stories about young babes falling for older, wiser intellectuals like, say, Philip Roth. I was reading his Library of America volume about Zuckerman recently and finally just put it down and said to the book: Sorry, Phil, but I cannot read one more speech founded on the f-word. I dont object to the f-word itself, but sorry, Ive simply been overserved.That Elegy is not simply a fantasy about the horny old rascal and the comely maid is to its credit. That it sees Manhattan clearly as a setting is also an advantage, since it is a place where we believe things like this are likely to happen. And then there is a wealth of supporting characters, notably Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), no spring chicken, who has been Davids mistress for years. She cant believe theres another woman in his life and launches a barrage of f-words, but she makes the character real and poignant. I also liked Dennis Hopper as George, the old pal he has coffee with, who attempts to bring sanity into Davids behavior, but despairs. And Peter Sarsgaard, as Davids son, with problems of his own and a father who has become not only an embarrassment but, worse, an irrelevancy.The movie is not great. Im not sure why. Maybe the payoff plays too much like a payoff. Consuela asks David to do something I think we might be better off hearing about, instead of seeing. Im not sure. The movie is obviously going for a big emotional charge at the end and might have been more effective with a quieter one. But you decide.
Elegy Overture Films presents a film written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Produced by Don Cheadle, David Hoberman, Jeffrey Silver and Todd Lieberman. Photographed by J. Michael Muro. Edited by Billy Fox. Music by Mark Kilian. Running time: 113 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language).
Stephen HunterThe Washington PostWhat line is thinner than the one between confession and narcissism? Upon that line, exactly, does Elegy dwell, before tumbling off on the bad side.Derived from Philip Roths The Dying Animal, Elegy is the story of an older (late 60s) celeb professor, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), and his love affair with a much younger woman, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz).David has it made, New York-lit style. The author of a classic art history text, he lectures at Columbia, lives in an exquisite brownstone and has a minor celebrityhood as a reviewer for the New Yorker. He prides himself on never having affairs with his current students; he waits until the next semester to make his move.But Consuela is different. Why? Well, because shes played by one of the worlds most beautiful women, thats why. The movie then proceeds to document their career, but it does so entirely from his point of view. It doesnt care about her and, indeed, never really bothers to account for her life and her reasons for falling into a relationship with someone clearly 30 years her senior. It refuses to see her behavior as neurotic and, by that means, accepts his conceit that the relationship is morally appropriate. In fact, it never examines it from any ethical point of view at all, it wholly lacks rigor and the drama of the piece (the issue of commitment) turns on him, not her.When a friend croaks, the scene really is about Davids strength; when a loved one becomes ill, his behavior again is exemplary, and were to admire him more than mourn the ill character. Sadly, Elegy reminds me of the title of another great American writers book: Advertisements for Myself.