Sir Ben Kingsley Plays Roth’s Concupiscent Kepesh as Cruz Nudes Up

sarris 3 Sir Ben Kingsley Plays Roth’s Concupiscent Kepesh as Cruz Nudes UpELEGY
Running time 108 minutes
Written by Nicholas Meyer
Directed by Isabel Coixet
Starring Penélope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard

Isabel Coixet’s Elegy, from the screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, based on the short novel The Dying Animal by Philip Roth, enters a metaphysical region between life and death that few films have ever dared to explore. Ms. Coixet and Mr. Meyer have managed to capture much of the bittersweet humor of Mr. Roth’s brilliant confrontation of old age, his own included. The director and the scenarist are aided in no small measure by a very accomplished cast headed by Ben Kingsley as David Kepesh, Mr. Roth’s hyper-articulate literary alter ego, who ranges in age here from 62 to 70. Kepesh is first seen in the film on the Charlie Rose show (with real-life Charlie Rose on hand) ruminating about the first libertarian colony in America, Thomas Morton’s Merry Mount, a fur-trading settlement about 30 miles northwest of the repressive God-fearing Puritan colony of Plymouth. At Merry Mount, the settlers and the Indians commingled in every sense of the word, and staged pagan dances around the maypole until Governor Endicott of Salem sent the Puritan militia under Miles Standish to tear down the maypole, and arrest Morton for sacrilege. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story about Morton and the maypole, and its neglected place in American history as the first manifestation of American hedonism—and the last until the sexual revolution in the 1960s, at least according to Mr. Roth and Professor Kepesh, who says so in an aside to the latter’s cataloging of all his campus conquests. In one fleeting image, the campus on which Kepesh cavorted is none other than that of my own beloved Columbia University. And since I am an aged professor on that same campus, it is understandable that I feel that Mr. Roth is speaking for me, if not directly to me, when he writes as Kepesh: “Can you imagine old age? Of course you can’t. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had no idea what it was like. Not even a false image. No image. Nobody wants anything else. Nobody wants to face any of this before he has to. How is it all going to turn out? Obtuseness is de rigueur.”

When Kepesh first saw Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz) in his class in “Practical Criticism,” he was 62 and she was 24. Mr. Roth painstakingly describes every detail of how Consuela was dressed, and every nuance of how she wanted to be seen. Outside the door of his classroom is a sign advising his students to report any incidents of sexual harassment. Hence, he makes it an ironclad rule never to make contact with any of the female students until after the final grades were posted. When he meets students in his office, the door is left wide open. Then at the end of the term, he gives a large party in his spacious apartment, one to which he makes it a point to invite Consuela. Eventually, he finds himself in a position to have Consuela unveil the marvelous breasts that have inflamed his erotic senses.

I doubt that this movie with all its sustained contemplation of a woman’s beautiful body would have been possible even a decade ago. The literary property would have been stamped “unfilmable” from the outset. Yet I cannot describe the effect of all this frontal assault as particularly erotic. It is not Ms. Cruz’s fault. She brings a very precisely defined humanity to her role. Perhaps that is the problem. She is somehow too real, too existential, and, ultimately, too vulnerable to be viewed coldly and callously as a desensitized pornographic stimulus.

Also, Mr. Kingsley evokes too much aging angst as Kepesh for us to enjoy his lustful adventures. Indeed, Kepesh is but the latest of Mr. Kingsley’s aging academics, represented most recently by his eccentric psychiatrist in Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness. It is my new policy to try and not give the plot away when I decide that the reader may derive more pleasure by discovering it unaided by the critic. But it suddenly strikes me that anyone who has read Mr. Roth’s source material will already know what lies in store for Kepesh and Consuela. Is my new guilt-ridden policy on narrative exposure thereby unfair to my more literary readers, who might prefer me to evaluate all the plot twists in the story?

In this respect, let it be said that the film’s adapters have hit all the crucial plot points of the story, though scrimping on the densely subjective texture of Mr. Roth’s exquisite prose. I do not agree, however, with some of the negative comments about the alleged miscasting of Dennis Hopper as Kepesh’s best friend, George, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. I have no idea how you can possibly miscast a poet in these dismally unpoetic times. It takes someone with a motorcycle hoodlum’s hubris to keep cranking out poetry for an increasingly print-shunning populace.

Patricia Clarkson has one striking scene as Kepesh’s longtime girlfriend, Carolyn, in which she screams at Kepesh over his perceived infidelity to their unsanctified union. I can’t imagine such a scene taking place for the greater part of American film history. Yet one feels the fragility of all relationships in this one outburst of non-marital sexual jealousy.

Peter Sarsgaard also brings something extra to the faintly ridiculous role of Kenny Kepesh, David Kepesh’s 42-year-old disgruntled son, who still has not forgiven his father for walking out on the family when Kenny was only a little boy. The seemingly endless father-son exchanges do much to redeem the film’s chief protagonist as a being who can look past his own frightening old age to console his son with patience and tenderness in order to prepare him for the inevitable trials to come.

If I recommend Elegy to my readers, it is not as a licentiously escapist entertainment, but, rather, as a soberingly eloquent expression of what our lives are all about, whether we want to think about them or not.

asarris@observer.com