In what may be a perfect sophisto storm, none other than Sir Ben Kingsley plays Philip Roth's academic antihero David Kepesh, a solemn piano underscoring his negotiations with sex, art, and mortality in the Continental Manhattan of Isabel Coixet's new film, "Elegy." Kepesh teaches literature at Columbia and, as a low-key celebrity cultural critic -- is there any other kind of intellectual celebrity -- works the NPR/Charlie Rose circuit.
For the second time this year, following "The Wackness," Kingsley plays an ethically rudderless man meeting late middle age with a problematic personality forged in the consciousness upheavals of the Sixties (per the vilest commercial ever made: "The generation that swore it would never get old, didn't"). In "The Wackness," he threw a tantrum against the dying of the light; it might've been an amusing performance were it not for the implication that there was something heroic about his puling.
Kepesh is something else; the author of a book on America's hedonistic history, he's no classical Dionysian. He keeps an immaculate, austerely modern, moodily underlit apartment; there's a full bar of aperitifs, but he never gets visibly drunk. After abandoning a marriage and a son to fight the sexual revolution, he never relapsed to fidelity, pursuing instead a lifelong litany of affairs (his one recurring lay, a former student, now fortysomething, is played by Patricia Clarkson). No randy old Fernando Rey, Kingsley isolates Kepesh's libido to a childish sparkle of the eye. A breach in the integrity of the good professor's defenses comes through a student, Consuelo (Penelope Cruz), a Cuban-American girl whom he tactfully prompts into an affair come semester's end.
I have not read "The Dying Animal," on which this film is based, nor any of Roth's novels. This may give me some advantage in seeing the movie as a work unto itself, though a previous acquaintance with the material might've helped me to put a finer compare-and-contrast point on what exactly is missing here. Kepesh is an extraordinarily good character, a finely shaded psychology rather than a screenwriter's checklist of idiosyncrasies; Kingsley approaches his job with a delicacy that is wonderful to see. He's also extremely passive, carapaced by his extreme reserve for much of the movie. This doesn't necessarily hobble a film -- see Philippe Garrel's "J'entends plus la guitare" or Nuri Bilge Ceylan's output, both dealing with emotionally constipated men of a certain age -- but "Elegy" never satisfactorily counterbalances Kepesh's forbidding interiority with what could broadly (and vaguely) be called "cinematic" textures.
My instinct says this is a plot-heavy adaptation of a work based heavily in introspection, and thus the feeling that something's lacking in translation (a.k.a. John Huston syndrome). So in this story of an apostate's late-in-life rebirth, the falling-of-scales-from-the-eyes is only faintly relieving, hardly transcendent; though Kingsley and Cruz's dueting is sensitive and hairpin responsive, it's just not quite enough to sell some of Roth's more incredulous plot turns (wasn't "Autumn in New York" supposed to be a bit like this?). But it is very good to see Dennis Hopper, touching as Kepesh's poet friend; good to see sex and death treated with proper gravity, bodies treated with a measure of real awe. In so many words: a failure encompassing more than most movies try for.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a regular critic for the Village Voice.]