© 2008 Ray Wong
Based on Philip Roth's novel, Elegy: The Dying Animal, the film is a character study of man and his personal philosophies as well as experiences about love and relationships.
David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is a renowned writer and literary critic in New York City. His best friend is fellow professor George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper), a man seemingly trapped in his marriage. David also has a purely sexual relationship with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) for over 20 years. He also despises his adult son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), who still couldn't get over the fact that David walked out on his mother and him. You see, David doesn't believe in love or relationship. Once burned and having walked out of a marriage, David is happy to be single. He also likes sex, and he often seduces his students (after they're done with their classes, anyway).
One of those students is a Cuban immigrant, Consuela (Penelope Cruz). David is immediately smitten by her beauty and poise. David succeeds in getting Consuela to bed; but he also unexpectedly falls for her. An one-time encounter turns into some kind of relationship. But does he know Consuela? Does he even love her? Deep down, David knows it won't work -- he loves his freedom too much. He also knows that he's old; sooner or later Consuela would find a man her age and leave David. And yet he becomes almost obsessed with Consuela. He couldn't break things off before it's too late.
As the intellectual who likes his sex, Ben Kingsley (War, Inc.) is surprisingly subdue and introspective. He also narrates the film in an observant, quiet way. Kingsley gives a solid performance portraying a man who thinks he knows what he wants, but ultimately has his world turned upside down by a woman 30 years younger. Normally, such May-December relationships (not to mention sexually charged) could have a strong yuck factor, but Kingsley exudes a kind of sexiness -- intellectual, cultured, charming, thoughtful -- that works for his character. We can truly see why Consuela could involved with a man like him.
Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona) is absolutely stunning. She looks young and radiant. There's no denying that she is gorgeous. What is remarkable is that she also gives a nuanced, vulnerable performance of a woman who seems strong and confident on the outside. She makes us believe why Consuela could rock David's world so profoundly.
The support cast is in general excellent. Patricia Clarkson (Lars and the Real Girl) is exceptional as David's fuck buddy, a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and yet still can't get past her own insecurity and fear. Peter Sarsgaard (The Mystery of Pittsburgh) is a bit weak as David's needy son. I'm not convinced by the character nor his performance. Dennis Hopper (Swing Vote) is wonderful as David's best friend and confidant. His criticism and own failure reflect on David's bad behavior. In fact, David thinks he's more superior because at least he's honest.
Nicholas Meyer (The Human Stain) adapts Roth's novel by keeping the focus on David, whose view points and philosophies continue to crumble. As George said to David, "It's not about growing old. It's about growing up." Meyer's screenplay is layered with keen character observations and nuanced interactions that reflect on David's struggles and changes. It's not the kind of story that is full of surprises, twists and turns, or any real plot. Instead, it's an intimate examination of love, sex, and obsession. How one's heart sometimes simply can't reconcile the mind, no matter how hard one tries. The characters come off as realistic and not two-dimensional or caricatures. They don't come off as elite snobs either, even thought they could be. The dialogue is exquisite at times, and the relationships among these people release and reveal themselves like the flavor of a fine wine. It is slow. It is deliberate. It's relaxed. But it's also intricate and delicate.
Isabel Coixet's (Paris, je t'aime) direction matches well with the material. There's something lyrical in the pace and the structure. Nothing is rushed. The music is appropriate but not melodramatic. And Coixet trusts his actors, all veterans who know what they're doing. There are times when Coixet does have the tendency to linger too long, or rely too much on the audiences to interpret the characters' thoughts and feelings. Over all, Coixet has given us a richly layered, well-paced character study that is intimate, intellectual, and emotional. The ending also reminds us of the age-old wisdom: "If you love something, let it go. If it's meant to be, they'll come back to you."
Elegy, like the word suggests, is a serious reflection of human emotions, relationships, and wants and desires. The filmmakers and actors have done a tremendous job. It's exquisite. It's touching. And it can be provocative, too. It's one elegy you can enjoy without an advance degree in literature or art.
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Dennis Hopper
Director: Isabel Coixet
Writers: Nicholas Meyer (based on Philip Roth's novel)
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 8.1 out of 10