(No longer in theaters)
Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Domenico Procacci
Aug 8, 2008
Elegy is a spare, melancholy film that is so far in spirit from its source, Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, that I’m tempted to say we should abandon altogether the idea of adapting Roth. (I’d suggest Charlie Kaufman take a stab, except he made us watch him jump through hoops over Susan Orlean …) It’s not that Roth’s novels are too solipsistic; it’s that their solipsism is a Versailles-size hall of mirrors—endlessly doubling back and endlessly refracted. The Dying Animal—the third book to feature David Kepesh, who first appeared in The Professor of Desire (1977)—is a brief (for Roth) masterpiece that for all its twists and flashbacks and cultural musings reads as if it’s coming out in one urgent breath. The narrator has fancied himself carnality incarnate, with sex his revenge against the America of his youth (still in a Puritan stranglehold) and against death. (He is that explicit.) Now, in his sixties, his body failing, his sex drive more fierce than ever, he’s going back in his mind, to the anti-puritanical 1960s, when he asserted his freedom by ditching his wife and son and taking student lover after student lover. His latest, Consuela, might be his last—in any case, she’s the first he’s terrified of losing before he gets her into the sack.
Roth’s title brings something else to mind. Dying animals should be approached warily. They snap. They bite. The change to Elegy is sadly appropriate. Directed by Isabel Coixet from a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, this is another winter-solstice-of-life picture, a slightly more risqué Away From Her. It’s Philip Roth, Canadian style. (Vancouver stands in, unconvincingly, for New York.) In the book, Kepesh extols the virtues of classical music—quintets, sonatas—as a way station between deep conversation and bed. Here it’s just classical music. Late in the film, Kepesh and Consuela walk along a beach, the sea the same gray as the sky. The soundtrack is Satie. The animalism, the bite, it’s now so much chin music.
Ben Kingsley is Kepesh. He wouldn’t be the first actor I’d cast (any more than I’d have cast Sir Anthony Hopkins as a closeted black man in The Human Stain), but I liked him. Sir Ben has lately been getting a lot of nookie onscreen. In The Wackness, he had his tongue down Mary-Kate Olsen’s throat. Now he’s making the beast with two backs with Penélope Cruz (as Consuela). He’s better looking than in his youth: still beaky, but his chest is built up and he radiates sexual confidence. He no longer makes you think of Gandhi. (The real Gandhi, of course, got a lot of nookie, but not Sir Ben’s.) Cruz does a hilarious turn as a hellcat in Woody Allen’s upcoming Vicky Cristina Barcelona, so you can’t blame her (or Kingsley) for the glacial pacing of her scenes. When Kingsley showed her the metronome on his piano, I wanted to reach into the screen and set it faster.
In between his scenes with Cruz, Kingsley plays squash and talks about sex with Dennis Hopper as his best friend, a poet. Even though their encounters have a slightly stale feel (it’s metronomical: one scene with Cruz, one scene with Hopper to talk about Cruz), the actors have a tender rapport. Roth has said in interviews that he expected age to bring the death of his parents, but no one told him how devastating it would be to lose dear friends. That pain comes through here. And in a film that’s partially about the emotional fallout of 1960s freedoms, Hopper’s aged visage has resonance. (So does the brief appearance of Deborah Harry, surprisingly vivid as his wife.)
Reading back, I see this is a rather harsh review of a movie made with intelligence and taste. But taste—at least when it’s this refined—is an obstacle to getting at the explosive hunger in every line of The Dying Animal. Satie … empty beaches … I scanned the surf in vain, hoping for something messy, jarring, with the reek of death. Where is the Montauk Monster when you need him?