Elegy


Elegy

Sir Ben Kingsley can hardly wait to film his sex scenes with Penelope Cruz.

(Goldwyn) Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry, Charlie Rose. Directed by Isabel Coixet

As we get older, we tend to desperately fight against the aging process by resolutely not acting our age. In some cases, we do it without realizing we’re doing it but in others we are completely aware of our motivations.

David Kepesh (Kingsley) is a professor of literature, a published author and a radio show host on the subject of books. His best friend, George O’Hearn (Hopper) is one of the world’s most acclaimed poets. He lives in a comfortable New York apartment (the kind with a stunning view) filled with art and books, made for lounging around with the New York Times on a Sunday morning with a coffee and a bagel from the neighborhood deli.

David abandoned his wife and son (Sarsgaard) years ago and seems to have been in a mid-life crisis since then. He has a tendency to pick one female student each semester to seduce, prudently waiting for the grades to go out before inviting his whole class to a party at his apartment and dazzling his prey with intellectual insights and an invitation to get together for coffee or an off-Broadway play. This way, there’s no hint of impropriety.

This semester’s target is Consuela (Cruz), a Cuban-American girl who is a lot different than the starry-eyed co-eds he usually aims for. She is a bit older and surprisingly, sees there might be more to her professor than an aging lothario.

The two embark on what is a highly physical relationship, which at first suits David fine as that is really all he wants. But as they spend more time together, a more emotional bond begins to take form. David, against all odds, falls in love.

With love comes jealousy, and David’s inherent self-doubt begets an irrational obsession that Consuela might be seeing a more attractive, virile younger man. He begins to stalk her a little bit which doesn’t sit too well with her. When she asks him to show up at a graduation party, he realizes that everything he fears may be waiting for him at that party – and that everything that is truly terrifying may be waiting for him if he doesn’t go.

This is based on a novel by Phillip Roth, who quite frankly isn’t the easiest author to adapt to the screen. Nicholas Meyer, who wrote the screenplay, does a very good job and let’s face it; he gets one of the best actors in the world to work with. Kingsley has to take a character that is basically unlikable and get the audience to at least relate to him. He is quite successful in that we are motivated to continue along for the ride.

The surprise is Penelope Cruz. An Oscar winner for Vicki Christina Barcelona, she takes a part that is far more sexual than any other she has ever tackled and makes it her own. In fact, I think its fair to say that you will go away from this film remembering Cruz even more than you will Kingsley, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. For my money, she has in the last few years become one of the best actresses in film today, up there with Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslett, Hilary Swank, Helen Mirren and Amy Adams for consistent quality performances from a leading lady.

The setting is the New York literary scene, an environment that I as a writer have always found fascinating. Not everyone will share that fascination; the scene has its share of narcissists and self-aggrandizers, enough to give it the smell of hoity-toity. Still, I can’t really fault a film for catering to the intelligent, and that’s what Elegy does. You may not love everything that happens on-screen, but there’s a certain honesty here and plenty of subtle layers – I haven’t even mentioned Patricia Clarkson, who plays David’s longtime mistress who shares his fondness for sex without emotional ties and is shocked that her paramour is getting into a situation that is an emotional minefield.

Every character here adds nuance, and I appreciate that a great deal. While this isn’t a movie I would recommend unreservedly to everybody, it is a movie I can recommend to anyone who likes their movies smart and thought-provoking as this does on the subject of men and aging. I hope I won’t be seducing young women at Ben Kingsley’s age; for one thing, I’m happily married and plan on remaining so. For another thing, I think I have a higher opinion of women than David does. For yet another thing I don’t have the gravitas and alluring charm of Kingsley so chances are I won’t be as successful as he is at it.

WHY RENT THIS: Stirring performances from Cruz and Kingsley. A literate and well-written script that doesn’t talk down (mostly) to its audience.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The New York intellectual setting may turn off some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and a lot of sexuality, as well as some rough language. Definitely for adults and mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David tells Consuela that she looks like Goya’s Maja Desnuda. Penelope Cruz played Pepita Tudo (who was possibly the model for the painting) in Volaverunt.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Mary Poppins (!)

The Night Listener


The Night Listener

Sometimes Robin William's ad-libs get on Toni Collette's nerves so much she wants to strangle him.

(Miramax) Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Joe Morton, Rory Culkin, Bobby Cannavale, John Cullum, Lisa Emery, Ed Jewett, Becky Ann Baker, Joel Marsh Garland. Directed by Patrick Stettner.

Our view of reality is really made up of a series of perceptions, not all of them ours. Very often we believe something to be merely because somebody told us that it was, be it the media, a friend or a loved one. Just because we are told something is so doesn’t necessarily make it so, no matter how much we may want it to be.

Gabriel Noone (Williams) is a radio personality on NPR, and one of the most popular on the airwaves. His late night show “Noone at Night” mainly consists of Noone telling tales about his life, concentrating on the eight-year struggle of his partner Jess (Cannavale) with AIDS. As a result, he has become a hero to the gay community and a well-respected raconteur everywhere else, a kind of gay Garrison Keillor.

As successful as he is, he is having all sorts of problems at home. His relationship with Jess is disintegrating, and it’s tearing him apart. Unable to get past his grief and pain, he is unable to do his show. Ashe (Morton), a friend of his in the publishing industry, in an effort to cheer him up hands him an unpublished manuscript of a book that his publishing house is about to put out, about a courageous young boy named Pete (Culkin). Pete grew up in a household of abusers who put him through the worst kind of tortures imaginable. Little more than a sex toy, he was eventually rescued and later adopted by a sympathetic social worker named Donna Logand (Collette), but by this time the boy had contracted AIDS.

It turns out that Pete is a big fan of Noone’s radio show, and the two strike up a series of conversations. Noone comes to admire the boy’s courage and spirit. He is in the final stages of the disease now, in the hospital more often than he is at home. The boy’s fight slowly brings Noone out of his shell of despair.

However, something is not quite right. When Jess finally gets to talk to both Pete and Donna, he notices that their voices sound alike. Upon further examination, it turns out that nobody has ever seen Pete—only Donna. Gabriel’s research assistant Anna (Oh) does some digging and can find no records anywhere of a situation even remotely resembling that of Pete Logand. When Gabriel talks to Donna about his misgivings, she has an explanation for everything. Still, the misgivings persist and the publisher eventually decides to delay publication until they can get to the bottom of things.

Gabriel is torn. He wants to believe that Pete exists, but he has doubts and yet if he is real, then he just helped kill the dream of a dying boy. Wracked by guilt, Gabriel decides to go to Wisconsin to ascertain the truth for himself.

The novel that this movie was made from was in turn based on the story of Anthony Godby Johnson, the “author” of the book “Rock and a Hard Place” and who victimized such people as Oprah Winfrey, Mister Rogers, Keith Olbermann and novelist Armistead Maupin, author of The Night Listener. I thought it interesting that Maupin gave his lead character the name of Noone—or no one. Clever, don’t you think?

Williams, who it now can safely be said is one of the more gifted actors working, takes on the role of a gay man riding an emotional roller coaster. There is a great deal of sadness in him but also a good deal of resolve. He isn’t a typical hero for a thriller, clearly conflicted about his own doubts. He really needs to believe, but can’t quite bring himself to.

Ever since she first came to my attention in The Sixth Sense Toni Collette has continued to impress me more and more. She is taking on roles that challenge her and stretch her nearly every time out and she has the ability to take a role that has little substance and make it something better. She is given a lot more to work with here, and she is magnificent.

Director Stettner, on only his second feature film (The Business of Strangers was his first) shows a sure hand. The pacing is steady and unrelenting. There is not a bit of wasted business. He also makes some intriguing choices. For example, he shows Donna early on in the movie to be well dressed, good looking, competent and confident. When Gabriel finally meets her she is frumpy, plain and unpredictable. The idealized Donna is what Gabriel imagined her to be; the reality turns out to be a bit different.

This is a well-written, well-acted drama…er, thriller…ok both. I was pleased to see the gay characters portrayed as people whose sexuality happens to be of that orientation. Too often gay characters in the movie are flamboyant queens (and Williams bears some responsibility for this here) who can’t really be taken seriously. Gabriel Noone is a serious character, flawed and over-emotional sometimes yes, but with a heart as big as a buffalo and a mind to be reckoned with. Maybe that will be what The Night Listener is remembered for in the long run.

WHY RENT THIS: A competently executed thriller/drama whose main characters are gay men whose sexuality is merely a part of their personality. Williams and Collette give solid, grounded performances. There are a lot of subtleties in the movie that are delightful upon further reflection.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Noone behaves inconsistently from time to time which while making him a more realistic character can sometimes be annoying to the viewer.

FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing sexual content, as well as some fairly rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real-life husband of writer Armistead Maupin plays Jess’s friend Lucien, whom Noone refers to as “Lucifer.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sukiyaki Western Django