Penelope Cruz is equally glorious but more subdued in Elegy than she is in her breakaway turn as a passionate artist in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. There she's playing an erotic catalyst. Here she's playing an object of desire: Consuela, the Cuban-American student who represents aging professor David Kepesh's last chance for ecstasy. Set in the same cultured Manhattan of last year's splendid Starting Out in the Evening, this intelligent, uninspired adaptation of Philip Roth's novella The Dying Animal is an unusually adult sexual drama with several nitro-charged scenes.
Only one of them, unfortunately, has to do with sex.
In that arena, the movie suffers from a fatal stroke of miscasting. Kepesh, a critic who, thanks to public broadcasting, is also a minor cultural celebrity, needs to have a subtle, exquisitely shrewd sexual magnetism. The often-great Ben Kingsley plays him with a proud strut and a calm intensity, but without the lightning strokes of intuition or the inspired physical gestures that would make you understand why Consuela surrenders to him. He even lacks the hidden fire that would make you understand why she grows to love him.
The failure at the center of this film belongs not just to Kingsley but also to director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, too. The overwhelming urgency of sexual desire is the core of Kepesh and Consuela's bond.
For the resolutely unsentimental Roth, that's what substitutes for the poignant shared experiences or poetic flights that seal the feelings of conventional love-mates. The sex scenes need to be tidal in their force, as they were in The Unbearable Lightness of Being or, more recently, in the good parts of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. And they need to capture two sensibilities locked in a combative give and take.
Elegy, like The Dying Animal, is about how giving in to amorous desires can deplete a man's sense of power, because what makes lust dizzying is the way power passes back and forth between two partners. But even when Kepesh describes that lessening in the movie, in voice-over narration taken from the book, he seems to be projecting his own meanings onto Consuela rather than grappling with her instinctive provocations.
There is no fool like an old fool. It's suitably shriveling to see jealousy wreak havoc with Kepesh, to the point of spying on her in a dance club where she's gone to dance with her brother. The main story finds its level only when, in a heartbreaking final half hour, it does turn into a love story. Kingsley lets the emotional ravages of desire wash over his face, and Cruz becomes a mistress not of man but of her fate, in a scene that echoes the picture-taking in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The movie could have used more of Roth's torrential language - maybe Kingsley could have talked his way into conjugal mastery. But for a chamber drama it's unusually spacious and well-populated. Three supporting relationships are brilliantly limned. Patricia Clarkson is breathtakingly vivid and honest as Kepesh's long-term lover who won't be lied to or cheated on. She captures Roth in every sentence: She does speak (to quote the book) "not angrily like a wife fortified by the ironclad historical claim but like a courtesan of renown, out of indisputable erotic authority."
Peter Sarsgaard encompasses both the childishness and manliness of Kepesh's successful, conscience-tortured son, who never forgave his dad for leaving his mother, and who fears he's turning into his old man when he has his first affair. And Dennis Hopper is amazingly vital and unpredictable as Kepesh's only close friend, a philandering poet. Hopper, with relish, puts over the key line: "Beautiful women are invisible; we're so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside."
Watch a preview and see more photos from Elegy at baltimoresun.com/elegy
(IFC) Starring Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language. Time 107 minutes.