Elegy / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | August 22, 2008 | Comments ()
Why is that, sometimes, watching a good movie feels like such a goddamn chore? You know the type I’m talking about, right? The movie you stick in your Netflix queue because you think you should see it, and then forget about it until it arrives in your mailbox before it is subsequently placed on top of your DVD player for the next six months while your monthly subscription fees go to waste (e.g., I’ve had The Lives of Others checked out since February). Elegy, similarly, is a decent movie if you can force yourself to watch it. It’s just that it’s a melancholy, depressing film that glacially moves toward a desolate ending. It may even trigger a tear or two, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s because the dénouement is extraordinarily touching, or if it’s because of the elation you feel that the credits are finally rolling.
Truthfully, I don’t even know who these serious adult relationship dramas (SARDs) — like this, or last year’s Married Life or half of Julianne Moore’s filmography — are even aimed at anymore. It’s not that they’re bad movies — in fact, most SARDs are better than decent — it’s just that it’s hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for even the best of this genre like, say ,Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, and they never perform particularly well at the box-office. They seem like “prestige” projects, unseen indies that garner a few positive notices before disappearing, though I suppose it is easier than doing a stage production in London if you’re looking to boost your acting cred.
Elegy was adapted from a Phillip Roth novel, The Dying Animal, and it’s fairly typical of Roth’s work over the last fifteen or 20 years in its dealing with issues of mortality and geriatric living, though the Portnoy’s Complaint lustful side of Roth still peeks through here in Elegy’s frank depiction of sex (Roth, John Irving, and John Updike may be the horniest, literary men of all time, but they are also three of my favorite authors and I respect them all too much to call them what they really are: misogynistic pigs). The movie is about an aging cultural critic/college professor, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), who falls madly in love with one of his grad students, Conseula Castillo, played by Penelope Cruz, who — if John is to be believed — now has two solid English-speaking roles under her extremely tiny belt. David woos her with his usual brand of intellectual windbaggery, but his affection for her grows much deeper than it has for his usual grad-student conquests. Conseula is vulnerable and unsure of herself (“She knows she’s beautiful but doesn’t know what to do with her beauty”), and over the course of a very long hour, Spanish director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me), establishes their relationship before finally introducing the narrative hook, though the events that transpire after that don’t move at any brisker a pace.
For context, Kepesh also has a long-time, no-strings attached lover (Patricia Clarkson, a veteran of these SARDs), who drops by occasionally for a fuck and some decent conversation. His best friend is a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet (Dennis Hopper), who doles out relationship advice despite the wreck of a relationship he’s in. Kepesh also has a strained relationship with his son (Peter Saarsgard) from an abandoned marriage, who — even in his infidelity — manages to be morally superior to David. No one does smug better than Saarsgard.
But the central story focuses on the intense, May-December romance between Kepesh and Consuela, and thematically, Elegy’s message is much less subtle than it probably was in the more capable hands of Roth. Beauty is only skin deep is the platitude, but Hopper’s poet puts it better: “Beautiful women are invisible; we see the beauty, but we never see the person. We’re blocked by the beauty barrier. We’re so dazzled by the outside that we never make it to the inside.” Coixet takes some pains to demonstrate the dazzling “outside,” providing long, voyeuristic looks at Cruz’s naked breasts, which seems a little gratuitous until the “should’ve seen it coming” ending reveals the necessity of it.
Elegy is full of strong performances, a capable script, beautiful cinematography, and it raises some thoughtful issues. It is, undoubtedly, a good film, but it’s so somber, meditative, and so agonizingly full of itself that it’s hard to get excited about it. It’s a great movie to put on your Netflix queue. Just make sure to remove it before they send it to your house.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Maine. Please leave a comment or send an email.