Both Penelope Cruz and Sir Ben Kingsley had films released earlier this summer which had me somewhat intrigued (Kingsley with The Wackness; Cruz with Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Both films were more than underwhelming experiences, though the two actors both performed as the formidable actors we all know they are. In Elegy, not only do we have both of them in great form once again, but they’re also paired in a film that is eloquently made, with a story so masterfully told, that it makes up for both of the earlier disappointments.
The film is about accomplished college professor David Kepesh (Kingsley), who hosts a radio show in which he discusses literature, and appears on television numerous times to talk about other high-brow topics. But his favorite thing to do? Seduce young women. After every semester, Kepesh holds a cocktail party in which he invites all of his students. At that party, like routine, he finds one particular young woman to track down and lure into bed with him. His target in this particular film? The beautiful, elegant Consuela (Cruz).
Consuela is a Cuban-American student who, like many others, is astonished by Kepesh’s seemingly infinite knowledge of all types of culture. She allows Kepesh to guide her quite easily into his bedroom, and they quickly begin a passionate love affair that–shockingly to Kepesh–becomes much more than just physical. For the first time in his entire life, Kepesh feels emotionally attached to this woman. She’s all he thinks about when he’s alone, and he obsesses about her when she tells him she’s made plans. His jealousy turns to paranoia. All of this emotional jostling coming as a consequence of love–something which is very foreign to him.
Despite his near-stalking obsession, Consuela sees something wonderful in Kepesh. He does not know how to handle this love that he feels, and she uses that to make him putty in her hands. Kepesh, though, still cannot grasp his own strong emotions, and attempts at numerous moments to sabotage the relationship. He isolates her, breaks promises, convinced that sooner than later she would find a man more suitable to her age (Kepesh, as they explain, is more than thirty years older than her). Finally, Kepesh succeeds in his journey to end the affair, but he is faced with something even harder: loneliness and a broken heart.
The film is based on a novel by Philip Roth, an author who is frequently attempted on the big screen, but seldom told in any competent fashion (remember The Human Stain?). Much to Roth’s MO, the story is filled with sexual paranoia, particularly dealing with an older gentleman’s affinity for a much younger woman. Of the few films I’ve seen based on his works, Elegy is the only one that I’ve seen that truly works all of the way through. I wonder if it is poetic justice that it is Isabel Coixet, a woman, who finally makes sense of his words on the screen. She handles the material with restraint–well, as much as you can with such graphic material–and lets the story unfold through the characters rather than plot contrivances.
In truth, the film is in the hands of its two stars. Kingsley has much to do throughout this film, as its main character and narrator. I don’t know if we ever believe he is the Lethario that he is suggested to be, but his portrait of sexual awakening and lovelorn is both captivating and painful. The biggest star is Cruz, as the mild-mannered Consuela. At first glance (and definitely when we first glance at her in the film), she may be seem to old to play the strong-willed but naive college student, but we’re proven wrong rather quickly. For starters, certain moments in the film display Cruz’s amazing grace within Consuela’s skin that could only be achieved through life experience. Cruz, it seems, has found her niche in American films (another one saved by jumping that sinking Tom Cruise ship).
The film has several astounding supporting turns. One coming from the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson as Carolyn, Kepesh’s consistent and unattached mistress, who is much more upset about his affair than she thought she would be. Peter Sarsgaard plays Kepesh’s son Kenny, who has never gotten over the bitterness born from Kepesh’s abandonment of him and his mother at such a young age. Best of all, though, is Dennis Hopper as Kepesh’s Pulitzer Prize-winning friend George O’Hearn. It’s much to Hopper’s credit that he was able to pull off the role as a much-acclaimed poet and still hold that fire that has lit his entire eccentric career.
The film drags in more than one part of the movie, and the film never addresses anything that hasn’t been said in numerous other films before it. But it makes that always amazing point that is much more true than we realize: that some of the most brilliant men who are geniuses of the brain, can be the most incompetent when dealing with the issues of the heart. I will gladly look into more of Isabel Coixet’s more obscure work (I confess I haven’t seen any of it), and though this film is nothing close to perfect, it holds a great sincerity for its characters that carries through to the audience.
P.S.: With The Wackness Kingsley was with both Famke Janssen and Mary-Kate Olson, and now he in Elegy, he has the arm candy of both Clarkson and Cruz. I can’t think of a time in the past or can I think of a time in the future where numerous beautiful women will be throwing themselves so fervently at the knighted actor. That Gandhi is one lucky bastard.
Directed by Isabel Coixet