FILM REVIEW: Elegy 

Lonely Beast: Ben Kingsley nimbly carries Elegy

Elegy
Starring Penélope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard
Directed by Isabel Coixet
Rated R

David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is a toxic bachelor, in love with the idea of women but highly resistant to their long-term charms.

He lives in a spare, perfect New York apartment decorated with expensive black-and-white photography by Edward Weston and a carefully curated liquor cart. He is a cultural critic who is introduced in Elegy speaking to Charlie Rose about his book on hedonism in Puritan America.

He's a vain, confident man who tends to fall in lust with the beautiful young women who sign up for his cultural criticism courses, a predilection that has lost him a son, a wife, and, possibly, something more profound.

The set-up for Spanish director Isabel Coixet's Elegy at first glance has a certain slick veneer, a very New York sensibility that threatens to play into the worst kind of upper-middlebrow clichés about literary men and their travails between the ears and in the sack. Some of the dialogue is overly fussy, sounding very much like the interior voices and ornate language of fiction awkwardly translated to human speech.

Adapted from a novel by the ultimate macho-egghead writer Philip Roth, Elegy is in some ways a replaying of Nabokov's Lolita, about a sophisticated but ultimately lusty middle-aged man who finds himself dashed upon the breakers of a young girl's heart.

Almost comical in his fastidiousness, David is a man of control and culture who uses those gifts to woo the young women he meets. In voice-over and in conversations with his poet buddy George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper, as a toxic married man who keeps a cast of pretty young things on the side), David keeps emotional distance from his latest conquest Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz) even as he inches her slowly, carefully toward his bed.

But the seemingly naive and virginal Consuela, despite the Alice in Wonderland headbands and conservative Cuban upbringing, is not what she seems.

Adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, Elegy articulates with great subtlety how older men dabbling in young women play a game of cheating mortality, believing that if — like a shark — they stay perpetually in motion, they stay alive.

And as we come to see, there is some sad truth in that belief. Drawing others close to us, entering into marriages or long-term relationships is a way for us to watch time's passage on another's body. We therefore see it all the more clearly in our own.

Elegy's satisfying complexity comes from this honest appreciation of men's fears informed by a woman director's touch. The male characters are onion-peel complicated and sad, but the female characters are equally robust and well-drawn. As Consuela, Penélope Cruz is edgy and smart and maintains our interest even as the fascinating Ben Kingsley threatens to wrest it away with his more pointed and profound neuroses.

And there are other wise babes on hand too, like the lusciously urbane Patricia Clarkson, wonderful as David's friend-with-benefits Carolyn, a Candace Bushnell-style liberated, sexually in-control business woman.

Carolyn seems content with her and David's occasional sexual rendezvous, but is human enough to get furious when she senses David is seeing another woman. Like David, Carolyn realizes, perhaps too late, that life is passing her by, that the relationships and even the children she forsook might come back to haunt her.

But despite memorable turns by Hopper, Deborah Harry, and Peter Sarsgaard as David's bitter adult son, it is ultimately Kingsley who rules the roost. He is sublime as the emotionally truncated cultural critic, deft and erudite in his analysis of literature or art, but utterly blind in knowing his own heart.

The picture of metrosexual self-assurance, with his ramrod, cocksure posture and wardrobe of grays and blacks, Kingsley projects an intimidating ability to make the world go his own way. He has often been memorable in showy roles like Sexy Beast where sadism and nastiness rule the day, but he does just as well with control and buried emotions and the kind of sly, understated humor that can make a line register as improbably funny.

Even David's laughter seems cautious and controlled. His transformation over the course of Elegy, from a self-aware roué to someone who recognizes all he has missed in life, is carried nimbly on Kingsley's shoulders.

In this film about missed opportunities, David realizes too late that he was so careful to protect himself and so fixated on Consuela's beauty he never looked beyond the surface to imagine a future with her.

Smart and devastatingly sad, Elegy is at heart a film about the many damned-to-fail ways we try to protect ourselves from the inevitable certainty of death.

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