Elegy is Old School for grown-ups. Based on The Dying Animal, Philip Roth’s 2001 novella about a fictional Columbia University literature professor and his sexual liaisons with a recent student, you might assume Elegy would be a bit more profound. But while Roth exhorts his forty-something and older male readers to stop dating their secretaries and buying Corvettes, the movie isn’t so sure.
The Dying Animal is, of course, about more than just prolonged adolescence. It’s an exploration of what it is about the American experience that stunts men’s emotional growth. But Hollywood is a land of stunted and stunt men, and sadly, none of this makes it into the movie. So while there’s no drunken streaking scene in Elegy, there’s also no substitute for the page after page in which Roth chews over the history of America and why some of us have ended up this way.
At the center of the film is David Kepesh, a Columbia literature professor played by Ben Kingsley. Alongside Sir Kingsley is Penelope Cruz, as Consuela Castillo, a graduate of Kepesh’s class on criticism. Kingsley carries the movie and Cruz does a fine job, too, mainly because in the film, as in the book, she’s basically a rag doll. No acting required. The film follows the love affair between the two, centering on Kepesh’s obsession with how young she is, which constantly reminds him how old he is.
Did I mention Kepesh has a history, and that he’s a notorious womanizer with a history of bedding recent graduates? Funny, because the movie doesn’t mention it much either, and it’s kind of important. Joining Kingsley and Cruz are Patricia Clarkson, playing a continuing liaison who studied under Kepesh long ago; Dennis Hopper, who turns in an unexpectedly credible performance as Kepesh’s Pulitzer prize-winning poet friend; and Peter Sarsgaard, playing Kepesh’s son (“daddy, how come you never loved me?!”). The cast comes through, especially Sarsgaard, whose own natural man-boy affect embodies his character perfectly.
But in spite of strong performances, the film never takes off. It just hovers above the core contradictions that breathe life into the book.
For Roth, modern America is all about the tension between the free love of the ‘60s and the communal responsibility of the Civil Rights moment. Everyone has dual loyalties; between self and society, total indulgence and utter self-sacrifice.
This tension is tearing the professor, and the rest of America, apart. The legacy of the ‘60s has kept Kepesh tied down, unable to grow up. This exploration is nowhere to be found in the film, except for brief lip service right at the beginning. Old School, Knocked Up, or any of the other recent growing-up films never touch on this, either, but they don’t have to. The idea of communal responsibility is what could have made Elegy different from the rest of these films.
In a time when America is once again inspired by the prospect of large-scale social change, it would have been nice to see a serious contemplation of what that’s about.
-Nick Xenakis is a student at Stanford Law School, and former Senior Editor of The National Interest.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire