Samuel Goldwyn Films
Isabel Coixet/United States 2008

Carefully engineered to provoke a sigh from males viewing mid-life from either side, and possibly an elbow in the ribs from their partners, Isabel Coixet’s Elegy is polished to a smooth sheen. Adapted from Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, it also provides the sight of Ben Kingsley luxuriating in Roth’s occasional protagonist David Kepesh, college lecturer, media darling and commitment-phobe.

Having reached his late 60s with a wrecked marriage behind him and a bitter son prone to calling in the middle of the night to remind him about it, Kepesh maintains a low-maintenance lifestyle consisting largely of charming his students into bed. Apparently they form an orderly queue. For something more grounded – though not much deeper – Kepesh and Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) have a long-standing arrangement for sex and conversation. Then new student Consuela (Penelope Cruz) catches his eye, and Kepesh’s equilibrium comes unstuck.

Kepesh is not inherently likable or very admirable, and does more than his fair share of cheating, denying, and flailing about. He’s also a miserable liar, explaining away the presence of a tampon in his bathroom by blaming his oldest and closest friend (Dennis Hopper).

Arranging for this to be done by an actor of Kingsley’s impact is a bit of a cheat. Weaseling on Kepesh’s scale, and his occasional voice-over about the heavy burdens of late-life carnality, can seem a little disingenuous coming from a mercurial baritone with crystalline eyes and low body fat. What – I kept wondering – would Philip Seymour Hoffman have done with this?

To balance this self-obsession, Coixet allows Clarkson room to breathe, and a calm descends on Kepesh and the film whenever Carolyn rolls into his apartment for a quickie. Carolyn is the anti-Consuela: paler, milder and less pneumatic, she can’t help but seem more grounded. Hopper, as Kepesh’ other counterweight, has drawn a shorter straw, landed with the part of best friend and suffering the fate of all such plot devices, although the sight of Hopper and Debbie Harry playing husband and wife is a whimsical sight for anyone 45 and up.

As for Cruz, for the first two-thirds of the film she seems uncharacteristically light on her feet. Coixet does her the huge favor of carefully squeezing all the prurience out of the sight of Cruz and Kingsley in bed, even in one memorable pan down Consuela’s prostrate form while she’s in nothing but heels. But Cruz is helpless in the face of the plot’s more predictable aspects: No film yet conceived can break away from the prescribed sequence of events once a character visits an oncology specialist, and so it is here too.

Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, whose sci-fi scripts always held more humanity than most, teases out just enough of the anxiety from Kepesh’s troubling lifestyle to stop the character from driving you up the wall – a neat trick. Some high production values and Coixet’s inherent lack of cynicism also help, and Elegy maintains an expert pace at least until medical issues cause the film to drop anchor. It’s a russet colored chamber piece, expertly scored with delicate piano and strings, and speaks to masculinity in ways a male director might have more trouble with,

But it’s not actually much of an elegy. The Dying Animal would be a much more apt title on many levels – but as Coixet said herself after the screening, “I lost that battle.” It doesn’t feel like she lost too many of the others.

© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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