Friday, August 22, 2008

Another Roth novel loses in translation

Novelist Philip Roth's track record is none too good when it comes to movies. I'd read that "Elegy," an adaptation of Roth's short novel "The Dying Animal," was different, that it managed to respect Roth's themes, building a quietly powerful drama around an imposing performance by Ben Kingsley, who plays the Roth alter-ego character of David Kepesh. As it turns out, I found little about such assessments to be true. "Elegy" comes off as a work that never finds its own rhythm -- much less Roth's.

As for Kingsley. Well, Sir Ben's performance put me in mind of a doctor working with surgical precision. His Kepesh is tightly wound and unrevealed, not the man of savage urges Roth put at the center of his story. Although a narration -- delivered by Kingsley -- tells us of Kepesh's reluctance to watch the male animal in him die, this quality of irresistible desperation never quite comes across in Kingsley's measured performance.

Most of the movie -- which has been photographed in equally measured style by cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu -- involves professor Kepesh's obsession with Consuela (Penelope Cruz). Consuela, one of Kepesh's former students, is 30 years younger than he, and represents the professor's last gasp at rekindling the dying burn of his own carnality. Consuela responds to Kepish's charm, his culture and his sophisticated brand of flattery. For Kepish -- and I'm not sure this comes across in the movie -- culture masks his more carnivorous tendencies. If there's a contradiction in this, Kepesh may believe he can resolve it with Consuela, whom he regards as a kind of living work of art.

The script by Nicholas Meyer interrupts episodes from Kepesh's affair with Consuela with conversations between Kepesh and his best friend, a poet played by Dennis Hopper. Kepesh also has a few strained meetings with his son (Peter Sarsgaard) and with a more age-appropriate sex partner (Patricia Clarkson). As a celebrity intellectual -- the kind of academic who's also a Charlie Rose regular -- Kepesh has a public life that the movie reveals in glimpses.

A lot of the Roth novel finds its way to the screen, but somehow the movie doesn't feel like a living, breathing piece of work. An example: Kepesh's jealousy -- he knows that he never can possess this young beauty fully -- seldom feels like a wrenching source of humiliation for him.

Spanish director Isabel Coixet probably shows more of Cruz's body than has been seen in a movie before, yet Kingsley and Cruz don't generate much chemistry, perhaps because they're being used to illustrate Roth's themes rather than being allowed to develop as full-blooded characters. Kinsgley seems less like a man driven by fear of his own mortality than an actor giving a well-thought-out performance. Cruz, though better, doesn't quite spring fully to life either. Her Consuela -- wide-eyed and not willing to settle for orgasmic fulfillment alone-- contrasts with Clarkson's character, a woman who regards sex as sex -- nothing more.

As neat as Kepesh's spotless apartment, "Elegy" finds nothing to approximate the restless, demanding quality of Roth's prose, and nothing to establish the kind of relationship Roth does with a reader. Is Kepesh, who in the novel tells the story to an unseen listener, truthful? Can he be trusted? That's not the frame of mind with which you watch this well-crafted movie attain its sad and, I think, compromised beauty.

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