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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 10.16.08





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American Hedonist

Ben Kingsley as a sexy beast

by Jason Blair

ELEGY: Directed by Isabel Coixet. Written by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth. Cinematography, Jean-Claude Larrieu. Music, Angie Rubin. Starring Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard. Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2008. R. 108 minutes.

Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz in Elegy

“When you make love to a woman, you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life.” So decrees David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), the antihero of Elegy, although just what is triumphed over in this equation — the defeat or the woman — isn’t clear. That kind of bifurcated, academic thinking gets to the heart of Professor Kepesh, a man for whom, come to think of it, having a heart isn’t a given. Tomcatting around is something of a second career for David, who by day is a celebrated critic famous for his books skewering puritanical America, and who by night engages in skewering of an entirely different sort. Kingsley, so unsettled earlier this year in The Wackness, is on much firmer ground as a serial seducer in Elegy. He’s profoundly assured as professional scoundrel David, playing a rock — or perhaps rock star is more accurate, given his appearances on NPR and Charlie Rose — who manages to avoid seeming smug.

Into the grizzled lion’s den wanders Consuela (Penelope Cruz). Consuela catches David’s eye immediately, but it isn’t until the term is out that David decides to pounce. What shapes up as another conquest for David turns out to be Elegy’s defining moment: David actually falls for Consuela, leaving him confused, slightly possessive and then borderline obsessive. The lovers, dissimilar and decades apart, have precious little in common, yet Cruz and Kingsley establish a connection that renders their counterparts (such as Wonder Boys’ Michael Douglas and Katie Holmes) flimsy by comparison. As Consuela, Cruz plays another free-spirited idealist, if one lacking the ferocity of her recent work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Cruz is gentle and precocious as David’s pupil. Thirty years his junior, Consuela is every bit as sophisticated as intellectual David; she just isn’t old enough to know it yet. I haven’t enjoyed Cruz this much since Almodovar’s All About My Mother.

A spar from the wreck of David’s old life is Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a relatively youthful mistress of David’s who could nevertheless be Consuela’s mother. David will risk everything for the familiarity of Carolyn. (Clarkson is at her most alluring in Elegy, both remote and totally transparent.) While Clarkson is one of the great actors of her generation, a man who would wager her against Penelope Cruz is a man teetering on the brink. Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), David’s son, is a bitter man who’s never forgiven David for his peccadilloes, but who nevertheless seems poised to repeat David’s mistakes. That leaves poet George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper) as David’s only male friend of any consequence. Hopper, the runt of this ensemble cast, gives a grim, stiff performance with all the softness of a brick. 

Elegy, adapted from the Philip Roth novella The Dying Animal, is directed with a delicate touch by Isabel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words), who introduces long, lingering takes to evoke the vulnerability that age —  and love — bestows. It is a film that, unlike so many films today, becomes more secure and convincing as it plays, not less — while its characters deteriorate just as they finally reach what they’ve always wanted. 

Elegy opens Friday, Oct. 17, at the Bijou.