‘Elegy” softens the jagged edges and intensities of Philip Roth’s 2001 novel “The Dying Animal” and in the process becomes an inert mood-piece and a waste of prodigious talent. “The Dying Animal” may be the most unlikeable of all Roth’s novels, in its monologuist’s combination of overwhelming egotism and self-pity, but its refusal to compromise, to be “nice,” is exhilarating. It is an invigorating blast of defiance in the face of our current moral prudery. “Elegy” subtracts all the risk — the sexual ugliness, the discomfiting pathos, the black humor — from “The Dying Animal,” and only a thoroughly sanitized cliché of a film remains.
David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is a respected cultural critic and Columbia professor of 70 recalling an affair eight years earlier with a student, the ravishing, reserved Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz). In his youth Kepesh walked out on a young wife and child. Since then he has been an inveterate womanizer, making use of the sexual revolution of the ‘60s to sleep with as many women as possible. He has lived a life devoted to pleasure, entirely devoid of self-sacrifice. At this late stage of his romantic career he finds himself consumed with lust for Consuela, haunted by what is probably his last chance with such a desirable woman — and yet he cannot commit to her.
In the novel Kepesh rages against the treacheries of aging; he is full of weakness and contempt, and his intimate revelations render him pathetic. In the film Kingsley has the poise and taut muscularity of a boxer. He is cool and composed; he seems invincible. A hallmark of the novel is Kepesh’s voice, with its writhing, darkly humorous reimaginings of the past. The man’s moral repulsiveness is outweighed by the seductive fascination of his voice. In the film Kingsley is pitiable and nearly sympathetic. There isn’t a trace of the devil in his aging aesthete.
In both book and film, Consuela is largely a cipher. She is meant to be utterly gorgeous, and Cruz delivers. But there’s very little to her beyond her physical presence. She exists solely as the object of Kepesh’s desire. Roth attempts to compensate for his inability to create a plausible female character by endlessly obsessing over Consuela’s beauty. But it’s not even about beauty, really: It’s ultimately about breasts. So much depends on them. It’s almost laughable how much emotional weight Consuela’s breasts are supposed to carry.
The most satisfying parts of “Elegy” are ancillary to the main story. Patricia Clarkson plays a former student of Kepesh’s closer to his own age, a successful professional with whom he has had an on-off affair over many years. Her despair at her inability to find love contrasts poignantly with Kingsley’s emotional remove. And Peter Sarsgaard is convincing as Kepesh’s conflicted middle-aged son, who feels both rage and the desire to be close to his father. In one of the film’s few affecting scenes he visits Kepesh, ostensibly to get his expert advice on adultery; he ends up berating him for his failings as a father and leaves infuriated. Kepesh barely gets a word in edgewise.
The problem with “Elegy” is that it refuses to engage with the heart of Roth’s novel. “The Dying Animal” isn’t just another May-September romance. It’s about a man’s vast selfishness, his defiant worship of the body, his abstention from and fear of love. He has determined never to sacrifice his own pleasure and has finally come to the limits of hedonism. He is crying out from the depths.
“Elegy” turns its back on this ugliness and fire and desperation — the real stuff of life — and gives us instead the most generic and airbrushed of aging male fantasies.