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Half-Baked

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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?

Frozen River is unusually crafty for a Sundance-heralded socially conscious regional indie drama. After some evocative images (blue-gray ice, bridge to Canada, close-up of Melissa Leo suffering), the plot kicks into gear. The family’s new trailer home arrives, only Ray (Leo) can’t pay because her gambler husband has vanished with the cash. (Her younger son, who’d already packed his suitcase, watches, devastated.) Ray searches for her husband at the bus stop, also a Mohawk-run bingo hall, and finds his car in the lot and a young Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), with the keys. Ray pulls a gun on her, the gun switches hands a couple of times, they go see some sleazy people on the Canada side, and the two women end up joining forces (uneasily) to drive illegal immigrants across the frozen river into the U.S. It’s dangerous—but Ray’s spouse is awol, the Yankee Dollar won’t make her a manager, and she needs the money for that trailer and something more than popcorn for her two sons’ dinner.

The writer and director, Courtney Hunt, knows how to tell a story on film, and how to shoot her actors so they look as if they’re always in mid-thought—desperately trying to calculate their next moves. Melissa Leo has a lithe, alert body on a face that shows its living—she’s powerfully centered, like the movie. All in all, Frozen River is gripping stuff. Except it’s also rigged and cheaply manipulative. There’s a turn near the end involving a young Pakistani couple—for some reason Ray decides they’re terrorists—that’s outlandish on every conceivable level. And the ending … Surely Hunt didn’t mean to, but her testament to American gumption in the face of crushing poverty ends up affirming that crime pays, social consequences be damned.

Pineapple Express
Directed by David Gordon Green.
Columbia Pictures. R.

Elegy
Directed by Isabel Coixet.
Samuel Goldwyn Films. R.

Frozen River
Directed by Courtney Hunt.
Sony Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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