I'm not partial to overtly subjective reviews, yet I can't seem to find any better way of relating my response to Isabel Coixet's latest film, Elegy, an adaptation of Philip Roth's novel "The Dying Animal," which follows the romance between a college professor and his much younger former student. First, though, a note of appropriateness: early in the film, this professor, the Roth regular David Kepesh, who previously appeared in the novels "The Breast" and "The Professor of Desire," is lecturing about how literature, specifically Tolstoy's "War and Peace," will be appreciated differently by a reader at different points in his or her life. In ten years, for example, it may seem like a new book entirely.
Perhaps in ten years, then, or more likely in thirty, I will be able to watch Elegy again and have a new perspective. Maybe I will be able to relate to Kepesh, here portrayed by Ben Kingsley, when I am in my sixties and have similarly lived and experienced as much. Yet the fact that Coixet's film is so depressing makes me almost hope that I never actually live so long to find out. I should have known, what with the filmmaker's past films, such as My Life Without Me, with their gray atmospheres and dreary dealings with illness and death. While appearing on the outside to be a sexy drama about how one lecherous old man discovers love, Elegy is on the inside really just a slow, uninteresting depiction of a selfish fool who possibly too-late realizes that he's grown old before he's actually grown up. Even from the beginning, when I simply assumed the film to be yet another movie about an old man romancing a beautiful young woman, I had difficulty in not associating Elegy to The Human Stain, another terrible adaptation of Roth, in which Anthony Hopkins plays a senior professor involved in an affair with a woman half his age. In that movie the miscast younger actress is Nicole Kidman, while in Elegy, it's Penélope Cruz, who is actually ten years older than her character as Roth wrote her. This of course makes the relationship much less of a shocker, particularly if you already watched Kingsley cross tongues with Mary-Kate Olsen earlier this summer in The Wackness.
But then the movie isn't at all about the shock of seeing a man fall for a woman thirty years his junior. So many movies and so many real men have watered down that possibility anyway. And as for the film's questionable elements and detachments from the novel, I have to forgive them for not having read this particular Roth and for not wanting to waste time wondering how Kapesh's son (Peter Sarsgaard, looking more haggard than ever), is a mere 35-years-old if Kapesh continually notes that he left his wife and kids in the '60s, at which time he, along with the rest of America, finally rediscovered hedonism four-hundred years following the Puritanical suppression of Thomas Morton and his maypole-friendly colony of Mare Mount (or Merry Mount for you Hawthorne fans).
It's things like that reference to Morton that have me at least intrigued to read Roth's version of this story. Another fascinating bit of stimulation comes when Kapesh interviews an author for his literary radio show and they lightly discuss her theory that works of art can own us, but we can not own works of art. Surely this idea is dealt with more substantially and relevantly in "The Dying Animal," while onscreen it appears simply part of Coixet's portrayal of Kapesh's highbrow lifestyle, which also includes his performing Bach, occasionally reviewing plays for The New Yorker and being able to woo a young woman by quickly finding the perfect Goya nude with which to compare here to (another divergence from the book, by the way, is that Goya's "The Naked Maja" is used, perhaps because it more resembles Cruz, than Modigliani's "Reclining Nude," which adorns the novel's original cover). For a guy who thinks he's living the Bacchanalian dream, he's awfully prim and ordered in his revelry.
Yes, there is something obviously there in the connection between Kapesh's radio show guest's theory and the likening of Cruz to a painting, but it seems such a fleeting notion in the film that it almost seems Coixet isn't attempting to make that point. Nor does she seem to be making any point except to show us what it looks like when a woman filmmaker tackles such a male voice as Roth's. And what it looks like is predictable: Kapesh is displayed as such a confused old man that it's a wonder he was ever able to get where he is in life. Or attract someone as mature, intelligent and gorgeous as Cruz's character, Consuela. My first enjoyed moment of the film is an early montage of Kapesh's awkward, immature and obsessive actions in response to Consuela's first night out without him since the two began their affair. Initially, I thought, "yes, this is great; I've been through this." Then I realized that Kapesh is a 60-something year old man with decades of experience and learning who is acting like most of us acted when we were in our early 20s. Suddenly I realized that I was not going relate to or like this idiot, at least not the way he's portrayed in this film.
It's taken me longer to understand why I also disliked the film as a whole. I'm still not entirely certain, in fact. Unattractive characters have never really affected my opinion of a movie, and if anything I found Elegy morally interesting, after so many tales of men dealing with midlife crises and then deciding to dip into the younger woman pool, that here was the opposite (or is it the next step?), a story about a man dealing with a three-quarter-life crisis by ultimately wanting to settle down after years of lustful promiscuity. Additionally, I was impressed with all the performances, including those from Kingsley, Cruz and Sarsgaard, as well as Dennis Hopper, as Kapesh's Pulitzer Prize-winning poet friend, Deborah Harry (or Debbie Harry to you Blondie fans) as Hopper's wife, and Patricia Clarkson, as Kapesh's longtime, no-strings-attached lover, even if most of the actors' characters are suspiciously stupid (could Clarkson's character really think that Kapesh is monogamous with her? And she runs her own business? Absurd).
Yet somehow I walked away from Elegy with great hatred for the film. Maybe it was the bleak tone, the kind that requires a sequence set on a beach but only if the sand and ocean and sky are uniformly gray, combined with a personal fear of growing old that was lurking inside me somewhere on the particular day I attended the screening. Perhaps I was just hoping for something more entertaining at the time than watching a frost-chested Sir Ben telling a naked Penélope Cruz how perfect her breasts are. Possibly I was more inclined to watch that other new Cruz movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which arrives in theaters one week later. Of course, now that I think about it, maybe I should have just seen the two films together, as they seem like a curiously perfect double feature (though I say this without having yet seen Vicky), since one is a film about an old man romancing a young woman, set in Manhattan (though shot in Vancouver) and directed by Barcelona's most internationally successful filmmaker, while the other is a film set in Barcelona and directed by an old man with a reputation for liking younger women and being highly associated with Manhattan. If I dislike Woody Allen's film, I figure I can just assume that he and Coixet should have made each other's films, then dismiss them easily just like that.