Outside of a few odds and ends, the summer movie season pretty much concludes today. Throw the tarp over the pool, recondition the leaf blower, it’s done. If you’re willing to lay down cash for Death Race or Babylon A.D., you are in the grips of a cinephilia that in all likelihood requires treatment, and Godspeed to you. I sympathize: if I can beat it you can beat it, and maybe Joan Allen can join our support group, too. (Death Race, Joan? For the sake of our relationship I will believe that you mistook director Paul W.S. “Alien vs. Predator” Anderson for Paul Thomas “There Will Be Blood” Anderson and couldn’t wiggle free from your contract.)
The first of your 12 steps will be laying off the C-level action stuff in the run up to Labor Day—instead, take one Elegy and call me in the morning.
Elegy opened last week in New York and Los Angeles and is fanning across the art-house circuit. It’s based on a novella by Philip Roth, which I have not read. Back in time I read every book due for prestige moviemaking, and saw more than a few whose pages came unglued in the translation, like Angela’s Ashes (1999), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and the last crack at Roth, the Nicholas Meyer-penned The Human Stain (2003). That Meyer, best known for adding to the mythos of Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes, also wrote Elegy raised a red flag. But my fears were allayed. Elegy is one of the best films of the summer, and very possibly of the year.
What went right? I can only say by what’s on the screen. I know that ten years have been added to the female side of the central May-December relationship, making it more July-December. I understand that the misanthropy that coats Roth’s work like a layer of soot has been removed, if not completely eradicated, by Meyer and the director, Isabel Coixet, the first woman to direct a film derived from the author’s work (there haven’t been many, maybe because they’re too curdled for the screen). With my own eyes I saw the traces of Vancouver, where Elegy was shot, that intruded upon New York, where the story is set. And after its perfect accompaniment in The Painted Veil (2006), it may be time to retire the music of Erik Satie as underscore for heartache.
But I write about Elegy in the giving vein. It reunites us with Ben Kingsley, costar of another seasonal favorite, The Wackness, who is faultless again at center stage. We must envy Sir Ben, who at the cusp of his golden years is a major babe-bagger. In the purple haze of The Wackness it was an Olsen twin; here, he doubles his pleasure with Penelope Cruz and Patricia Clarkson. This comes at a price, but it’s revealed only gradually.
Kingsley plays Professor David Kepesh, much-acclaimed culture vulture, Charlie Rose guest, and “emancipated male” with a penchant for bedding his favorite students. Businesswoman Carolyn (Clarkson) enjoys their uncomplicated 20-year routine. But Consuela (Cruz), a new recruit for after-hours dallying, is different — rapturously beautiful, yes, but someone to obsess over, the kind of commitment Kepesh gave up when he walked out on his wife and their resentful son, Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard). It is for him a maddening affair, one that jealousy seeps into and corrodes.
At a delicate juncture in their high-wire union he does a terribly obvious and hurtful thing, and Consuela, fed up for the last time, leaves. For the next two years, Kepesh’s well-ordered, sexually satisfying, and emotionally neutral life loses its luster, and lust. It is only when Consuela returns that Kepesh can regain his bearings, but the circumstances are radically different, and the professor, so often content to drift, has to take the lead.
Elegy is about different kinds of love, none of them easy. Kingsley and Cruz make an unlikely duet on paper, but that is nothing compared to Kingsley and Dennis Hopper, a.k.a. Gandhi and Easy Rider, as lifelong friends whose bond is tested. Coixet, the Spanish director of the 2003 cancer drama My Life Without Me (starring Sarah Polley), coaxes a surprisingly understated performance out of Hopper, who often seems to play himself, and the two veterans harmonize. In the small and incisive role of Hopper’s wife, who has accommodated his philandering, is Deborah Harry, given just enough latitude. This is the sort of imprecise-at-first-glance casting that is often imposed on indie filmmakers to get “names” on the marquee and DVD packaging, but under sensitive direction it feels right.
Clarkson and Sarsgaard are right on the nose. Quite sexy in the non-explicit but candid lovemaking scenes, the actress is vulnerable under a valiant front, expressing her fear and disappointment at being shown the door after so many easeful if somehow unfulfilling years. Sarsgaard comes on strong in a belligerent role, then does an about-face when his character makes some surprising, dadlike choices. The notes Elegy hits are not the standard ones.
That Kingsley inhabits the part of Kepesh is no surprise. But he goes in deeper than I might have expected. The movie takes his point of view, but the object of his intense and painful scrutiny doesn’t wilt under his gaze. In Spanish, Cruz is terrific, a ball of fire, as in 2006′s Volver; but in English, she’s a Kewpie doll, and a frequent, if fetching, liability. The one exception was Vanilla Sky (2001), in which she played a role she was already familiar with from the Spanish original, Abre los Ojos (1997).
I would say that Consuela is her best performance using her adopted tongue, though I haven’t seen her in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which opens today, and where she is said to be even better. I doubt that part has as many rich tones, however. Consuela is an open book, one that her older, suddenly scared lover can’t quite leave an imprint on. When Cruz exits the picture, her absence is keenly felt; Kingsley is profoundly alone, in a way I haven’t seen him before, and seems to change and grow in the testing period that follows. The two actors bring out each other’s best instincts in award-worthy performances.
Segue: Kingsley brings something else out as well. “You have the most beautiful breasts I have ever seen,” says Kepesh to Consuela, in a tender, lingering moment that only a woman could have directed in such an empathetic way. The bare facts are something the American cinema shies away from, but Elegy goes all the way, in a manner of speaking. After weeks of nonstop manufactured wonders at the movies, natural ones are a balm to the eyes, as restorative as the many other adult qualities of the piece. Note to Kepesh: I agree.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.