After suffering through the sight of Ben Kingsley disgracing himself as Guru Tugginmypudha in Mike Myers' summer flop The Love Guru, it seemed reasonable to assume that it would be at least another year before viewers could take the Oscar-winning actor seriously again. But like both Michael Caine and Gene Hackman in the 1980s, Kingsley apparently agrees to every single script that crosses his desk, meaning that amidst all the dreck, there's bound to be a gem or two. Elegy is one such gem.
Eloquent and understated, Elegy is an adaptation of Philip Roth's novella The Dying Animal, and it shares some surface similarities to 2003's fine filmization of Roth's The Human Stain, starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. Both movies focus on the relationship between a worldly college professor and a beautiful younger woman, but Elegy is even more memorable than its woefully underrated predecessor. Its central character is David Kepesh, an English professor (and host of an NPR-style radio show on the side) who long ago walked out on his wife and son. Avoiding emotional attachments, he enjoys regular trysts with his like-minded "fuck buddy" Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a longtime acquaintance who drops into town from time to time. Mostly, though, he partakes in one-night stands with nubile students, careful to avoid sexual harassment charges by wooing and bedding them after final grades have been posted. Needless to say, this behavior doesn't exactly endear him to his now-grown son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), who still resents his father for destroying the family unit. For male bonding, David can only lean on his best friend George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper), a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who offers sage advice even while enduring a shaky marriage (his wife is played by Blondie's Deborah Harry, almost unrecognizable here).
Over the course of the latest semester, David is struck by the beauty of Cuban-American student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), and he manages to charm her in the same manner as many others who came before. But this time, there's a difference: There appears to exist a real affinity between this aged instructor and this woman who's three decades his junior, and they end up developing a real relationship. But David, incapable of dealing with his feelings, almost sabotages it from the start: He doesn't allow himself to get too close because he's convinced that she'll eventually abandon him for someone her own age, and these thoughts manifest into jealous episodes that result in him physically checking up on her to make sure she isn't fooling around behind his back. Intellectually, David may be the teacher and Consuela the pupil, but in other respects, it's the mature Consuela who has to teach the petulant David a thing or two about life.
The character of the aging intellectual becoming involved with a younger woman is hardly an original one: Just last winter, we witnessed Frank Langella's subtle work in Starting Out in the Evening, and this past spring saw Kevin Kline's comic take on the concept in Definitely, Maybe. But between the sensitive direction by Isabel Coixet -- and how interesting to see a female ably tackling material by an author who's repeatedly had to fight charges of misogyny -- the smart screenplay by ace scripter Nicholas Meyer (who also adapted The Human Stain), and the terrific performance by Kingsley, David Kepesh emerges as one of the most complex and fully realized screen characters of the season.
As for Cruz, she's a revelation in this role. It's a given that she's always been wonderful in Spanish-language films and wooden in English-language ones, but on the heels of her scene-stealing work in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (where she was perhaps able to make a slow transition by tackling dialogue in both tongues), she seems to have finally broken through. There's a scene late in the picture where Consuela bares both her body and her soul, and Cruz's wordless work speaks volumes about what her character's enduring. It's a heartbreaking moment, very difficult to pull off without the benefit of showboating, yet Cruz silently nails it. Clarkson is excellent (as always) as David's bedmate -- she's awarded a deeply moving scene in which she reveals that she's as frightened of getting old as David -- while Hopper scores as the garrulous poet who eventually turns out to be more complicated than he initially appeared. In that respect, he's like every other character in this brave, affecting movie.
MAKE NO MISTAKE: We've seen this exact same "root for the underdog" sport movies countless times before. But we haven't seen them starring hardcore rapper Ice Cube. And we certainly haven't seen them directed by Limp Bizkit frontman (and Gastonia native) Fred Durst.
But the presence of this pair has absolutely no effect on the end product in terms of making it fresh or vital. None of the scenes snap, crackle or pop, and, truth be told, Durst's staging of the football games displays a noticeable lack of imagination. On the other hand, it's hard to completely screw up this sort of formula film, and while its claim of being based on a true story should (as always) be taken lightly, it works on occasion largely because of the two charismatic actors at the helm.