(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 (!)