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'Elegy': Adaptation sands off Roth's rough edges
"Elegy" is a curious example of misplaced good taste. Spanish-born director Isabel Coixet's film, adapted by Nicholas Meyer, recasts into softer, more palatable material the 2001 novella "The Dying Animal," the third in Philip Roth's stories driven by the sensual obsessions of Roth alter ego David Kepesh.
He's played here by Ben Kingsley, an actor with an uncanny way of looking outlandishly intense and wryly detached in the same instant. You try that sometime.
That dichotomy, with Kingsley, is a question of when and how often (usually not often) he looks his scene partner in the eye. He's a remarkable actor, but an island. In various recent parts, from the Polish-American hit man in "You Kill Me" to the bong-addled shrink in " The Wackness," Sir Ben has been enormously resourceful and never dull. But Kepesh is a man eaten up by jealousy while his much younger ex-student, played by Penelope Cruz, is consumed by a different sort of predator. The role demands real, vital craziness, and neither Kingsley nor the film is into that sort of thing—the narcissistic mess of a horn dog in winter.
Kepesh narrates an extended look back at the beginning and the end of an affair. A well-known Manhattan cultural critic who teaches at Columbia, the 60ish fellow likes his affairs neatly compartmentalized and readily end-able. His long-term mistress (played by Patricia Clarkson) exists in one compartment; meantime, the odd student, a few weeks or months at a time and always after the last exam has been graded, exists in another. His son Kenny (a sullen Peter Sarsgaard), who has given up on a closer connection with his father, is cheating on his wife, and Kepesh can't fully relate to the self-inflicted tortures of the damned Kenny's going through.
Then comes Cuban-born Consuela Castillo (Cruz), described in Roth's book as a "a masterpiece of vulupte." At first Kepesh tries to laugh off his Consuela fixation with his old friend and confidant ( Dennis Hopper), describing himself as "the old guy who gave her some culture along the way." But the affair enters uncharted territory, and Kepesh's jealousy—as all jealousy does, in the end—acts as a reverse-polarity magnet. There is a major, life-altering plot development as well, which won't be dealt with here.
Screenwriter Meyer strips the story of most of its brutish sexual desire and its clinical detail (the book had Kepesh masturbating to Mozart while thinking of Consuela, that sort of thing).The Kepesh of "Elegy" is a far more easygoing roue than Roth's version. Yet a piece is missing. "This need. This derangement. Will it never stop?" Those telegraphic dispatches come from Roth, and the film goes only so far in that obsessional direction.
The most fruitful tension in "Elegy" is created by the collaboration between Coixet and Cruz, who work every angle they can to elevate Consuela above the level of idealized lust object.
Cruz, who can be a dazzlingly engaging performer in her native tongue, is getting more and more comfortable and expressive in English, and in "Elegy" she plays each encounter, each entreaty for space or plea for Kepesh to reveal something more of himself, as a way of investigating a limited character's possibilities. (I suspect having a female director had something to do with it; the nudity in "Elegy" is frank without being salacious.)
Yet the script plays much of Kepesh's story for civility and pathos at the expense of his unruly, politically incorrect impulses. Coixet, whose earlier works include the well-acted but similarly muffled drama "The Secret Life of Words," is a director of restraint and civility, and perhaps Philip Roth's temperament just isn't her temperament.
Roth never has been, and will never be, one of those exuberant Continental misogynists (my favorite: Milan Kundera) whose elegant way with irony and archetype sexualizes a story's atmosphere, effortlessly. With Roth, you feel the effort in every glowering line. But his burrowings really do take you somewhere.
If you're adapting this writer for this medium, shouldn't you honor Roth's recklessness more freely? Somber and steady, "Elegy" takes its cue from its title and plays the ending right from the beginning. Kingsley and Cruz should've had more to play with than this. As is, their charisma will be enough for plenty of filmgoers. For others the call will be a close one.
MPAA rating: R (for sexuality, nudity and language)
Running time: 1:46
Opening: Aug. 22 at AMC River East 21, Landmark Century Centre Cinema, Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park and CineArts 6 in Evanston.
Starring: Penelope Cruz (Consuela Castillo); Ben Kingsley (David Kepesh); Dennis Hopper (George); Patricia Clarkson (Carolyn); Peter Sarsgaard (Kenny); Deborah Harry (Amy)
Directed by: Isabel Coixet; written by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth; photographed by Jean-Claude Larrieu; edited by Amy Duddleston; production design by Claude Pare; produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Andre Lamal. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release.