Philip Roth is arguably the
most insightful modern chronicler of the stilted sexual lives of highbrow
intellectuals - the smashing collision of heightened brain power with the
often stupefying irrationality caused by raw carnal desire.
Roth has been mining this territory with great success going back to the
60s, when he first arrived in the literary limelight with books like
Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint.
Elegy, which is
based on a Roth novella called "The Dying Animal," is a perfect reflection
of the Roth template. Older, intellectual man meets beautiful,
carefree younger woman and falls in lust. He allows his disconnect, his
neuroses and his obsessive over-analysis to potentially screw the whole
thing up, refusing to acknowledge that the feeling he is experiencing is
love. It is a classic duel between the heart (and sometimes another
organ) and the mind - and of course we all know the mind always loses
that matchup. Anyone who tries to find rationality in love is certain
to be disappointed and/or humiliated.
You can't find a better
term than disappointed for David Kepesh, a New York professor who has been
embraced by the literati due to a slight NPR celebrity - he hosts a radio
series about literature. Kepesh - who is played with forlorn passion
by Ben Kingsley - is cynical, bored, angry, a little misogynist, estranged
from his ex-wife and son, self-centered and rather numbed.
He has lost faith in love,
a quandary which he discusses often with his best friend (Dennis Hopper) - a
married poet who is nearly constantly cheating on his wife (Debbie Harry).
At least Kepesh is more honest - he left his wife years ago when he realized
he was bored with monogamy.
Years later, he will
regularly pick up one of his students (after she finishes his class - which
is the remnant of his scruples ). It never lasts long, the young co-ed
gets bored with the older prof soon enough, but for a short period he can
hold onto something young and passionate. He has held onto one of
those affairs, Patricia Clarkson plays a forty-something former student
businesswoman who visits every time she is in town for a weekend of
If he isn't exactly happy
with his lifestyle, at least Kepesh is settled into it and comfortable.
Then his world is turned upside down when his latest conquest, a beautiful
of Latin decent named Consuela - played with fiery charm by Penélope Cruz.
The professor is rather shocked that she does not stray away from him
eventually - and then even more shocked to find that he does not want her
to. Still, his neuroses and inability to share feelings work towards
sabotaging the one relationship that he finally wants to explore.
Elegy is important,
if for no other reason, than it is helping to resurrect the underrated
career of screenwriter Nicholas Meyer. Meyer started out as a
best-selling novelist (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror)
and then in the 80s became a terrific genre filmmaker, writing and/or
directing such impressive films as Time After Time (on my personal
list of my ten favorite films ever), the best Star Trek movie (Star
Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) and the classic post-apocalyptic TV-movie
The Day After. However, since the early 90s, Meyer has sort of
faded from sight.
Meyer's most significant
recent credit was also on a film adaptation of a different Philip Roth
story, the fascinating-but-flawed 2003 film The Human Stain, which
starred Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. That novel was perhaps
unfilmable, so while it was an interesting experiment it didn't quite
connect. With Elegy, Meyer's screenwriting completely does
Roth's fiction justice.
Though towards the end the
film gets a little bit melodramatic (which is one of the slight Achilles'
heels of Roth's body of work in general), in whole Elegy is
intelligent and sexy. No matter what the character of David Kepesh
thinks, those two things do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: September 15, 2008.