You can tell “Elegy” is a “prestige” film because when its famous-author main character appears on a talk show, the host is not Jay Leno or Jon Stewart but Charlie Rose. (PBS, represent!) You can also tell it’s a prestige film because it features fantastic acting by respectable thespians, it has interesting themes … and the whole thing leaves you feeling colder than it was supposed to.
Knowing that it is based on a Philip Roth novel (“The Dying Animal”), you will be unsurprised to learn that it’s about an aging, erudite college professor whose life revolves around sex. Not in a dirty way, of course — that’s for the lower classes — but in the respectable way that smart people’s lives revolve around sex, where they treat it with academic scrutiny and detachment and almost hate to admit that they’re obsessed with it.
The professor is David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), an expert on American social mores who tells Charlie Rose that the Puritans stamped out “sexual happiness.” It wasn’t until the 1960s that it became acceptable to love sex again, and David’s book — “The Origins of American Hedonism” — lays it all out. David loves sex, hates commitment, hates marriage, deeply regrets having gotten married, does not regret abandoning his wife and son many years ago, but regrets that the son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), hates him for it.
David makes a habit of sleeping with his students. He’s been sleeping with one, Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), for 20 years! (She’s not a student anymore, obviously. She graduated from college but not from David Kepesh.) Carolyn has fooled herself into thinking she is David’s only regular fling, a wrong impression that David has not put much effort into correcting.
He meets a new woman, Consuela (Penelope Cruz), a smoldering Cuban in her late 20s who has gone back to school after working as a legal secretary. She is too young for David; when he tells his friend, George (Dennis Hopper), a poet, that he’s taking her to the theater, George says, “The theater? Why don’t you take her to the prom?” Consuela arouses new feelings in David. He’s jealous and possessive of her like a teenage boy would be, and while he’s fully aware that his behavior is strange, he can’t seem to stop it.
Written by Nicholas Meyer (who adapted Roth’s “The Human Stain,” too) and directed by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet, “Elegy” has class and respectability up the wazoo. It also has the sensibility of a European film in that the many sex scenes are “artistic” rather than “naughty.” I suspect this is because 1) they involve Ben Kingsley and 2) they’re accompanied by classical piano music rather than wah-wah guitars. Then again, Penelope Cruz’s breasts figure heavily in the film (and even in the plot!), so maybe you can enjoy it on a strictly prurient level, too. Art, shmart, everyone likes boobs.
As it turns out, David is actually an emotionally stunted liar. He’s convinced himself that he’s above such mundane things as human emotions, but the fact is, he just doesn’t know how to deal with them.
Kingsley is fantastic, of course, and Cruz is fearless (if overshadowed by her more fiery performance in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”). Patricia Clarkson elevates everything she appears in, and I’m glad she gets a scene in which to establish Carolyn as a fully realized character. Dennis Hopper is miscast as a poet — a Pulitzer-winning one at that! — but it’s sure a kick to see him on the big screen, especially when he gets to tell David Kepesh clever things like, “I have spent half my life playing Horatio to your third-rate Hamlet.”
But Kingsley and Cruz have zero chemistry. I believe their characters separately, but when they share a scene, it feels like people from two different films have been spliced together. Morever, while I like some of the film’s ideas — the notion that our actions affect those who come after us, and that art will outlive us all — the high-minded philosophical discussions feel like posturing, like the movie is trying a little too hard to earn that “prestige” title. It’s one of those films that you respect more than you actually enjoy.
C+ (1 hr., 53 min.; )