Whatever else its failings, "Elegy" comes close to finally getting the Philip Roth male onscreen in all his virile, intellectual, nutball glory. Interestingly, it took a woman to put him there.
The new film, directed by the Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet, is based on Roth's 2001 novel, "The Dying Animal," about a Columbia professor undone by an affair with one of his students. Ben Kingsley plays the professor, David Kepesh, as an aging bull of letters; it's another mesmerizing turn by our most established changeling prince.
Head shaved bald, chest a proud and steely gray, Kepesh is a Picasso of the classroom, and between his lectures and NPR talk show, a stud in academia. He wants no one and he needs no one, but he does like the chase. Every so often, he carefully chooses a pupil to seduce, after the grades are safely in.
"Elegy" is about his pursuit and conquest of Consuela, a graduate student from Mexico. Penélope Cruz has been cast in the role, so you can't really blame him, but the actress is playing 10 years younger than her actual age, and neither the camera nor we are easily fooled. We've known Cruz too long now for her to get away with portraying the innocent anymore. Anyone who has seen "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" knows this woman has been around.
Kepesh is such a figure of rigid, atheistic purity that he's bound to fall, and to his confusion, the affair with Consuela - filmed with frank sensuality - brings out his possessive side. The professor turns needy and grasping; he stalks and frets and ruins everything, torn between his pride in solitude and the ecstasy of losing control. From the sidelines, others offer advice: his best friend, a womanizing poet played with happy brio by Dennis Hopper (and married to Deborah Harry!); and a businesswoman and former student (Patricia Clarkson) who turns up once or twice a year in Kepesh's bed.
The saddest figure in this pained Manhattan landscape is the professor's estranged son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard, excellent as always), a grown man choking on his rage at the father who doesn't need him yet who still judges him. Kenneth has started replaying the older Kepesh's infidelities in his own life, but the difference is that it's destroying him emotionally. The weaker son is the stronger human being.
There's a lot of rich, loamy psycho-drama to work with here, in other words. So why does "Elegy" feel like such an elegant drag? Director Coixet, shaping this story about a man confronting his mortality - about glimpsing the end of the road - mistakenly keeps the pace funereal and the tone as muted and elegiac as the title. What's missing is the hectic, self-lacerating juiciness of Roth's prose, the brutal comedy that makes tragedy cut all the deeper.
It's just possible that only a male filmmaker could mine the humor in male delusion to the necessary depths. Kingsley keeps his macho intellectual compelling and then some, but "Elegy" drifts helplessly into melodrama, and it loses its bearings and its head in a ridiculous final act. Instead of a commentary on the ripe foolishness of men's sexual fantasies in the shadow of death, the movie becomes a fantasy itself, tear-stained and mawkish. The sound that's missing is that of Roth's unforgiving laughter.