September 11, 2008

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Elegy (R)
Ben Kingsley sputters and twitches at the beauty of Penelope Cruz in Elegy, a movie about the December half of the May-December romance.

David Kepesh (Kingsley) is a delightfully hateable picture of the egotistical intellectual — or would be if he also didn’t have that twitchy goofy human side that we alone, as the hearers of his inner monologue, get to see. He’s a professor writing pretentious-sounding books and delivering pretentious lectures to sycophantic students. He is a minor star in the literary world and has a reputation for one-night-stands but he doesn’t have many close friends — pretty much only the poet George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper), a fellow old-man writer with a fondness for the college-aged female bookworms, and Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a former student and businesswoman whose occasional trips to town are David’s most longstanding romantic relationship. Into this David-centric universe comes Consuela (Penelope Cruz), an older student but one who is still 30-plus years younger than David and one who has a beauty that stands out even in his world of available young romances. She is utterly enthralling to him, turning this occasionally condescending man into a nervous, jealous mess who wants a fully fledged relationship without the pain that he’s certain such a relationship will ultimately result in. She’s younger and will eventually leave him, David decides, but the longer he’s with her, the more he can’t bear the idea of that happening. He is, in some ways, consumed by her and yet, despite his age, not nearly mature enough to deal with feelings this big.

At some point in the movie, George lays out his theory about beautiful women — that they are invisible. Their beauty, he says, blinds people (men) to the person who actually lives inside the exquisite package. This very much sums up Consuela and to some extent Carolyn and even to some extent all the other non-David characters to David. They are just beautiful shells that he fills with his ideas about them and the way they make him feel. This makes for a very well developed study of David’s character but rather drippy roles for everyone else. This kind of role, the beautiful unknowable girl, is my least favorite Penelope Cruz character, one that she seems to get boxed into every time she’s acting predominantly in English. She is all sultry glances and make-up commercial skin but she doesn’t get to act, she doesn’t get to do anything.

The result of this low-volume kind of performance is that all attention in the movie goes to David and his character isn’t always a delight to hang out with. For all that we get to see David the flawed person, his position at the center of this constant focus means that we also get a lot of the adolescent mature artist character that is familiar and regularly tiresome. For every 10 moments of dry comedy or interesting character study, we get five minutes of a kind of self-indulgence that can make even the tightest movie feel draggy. C+

Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language. Directed by Isabel Coixet and writers Nicholas Meyer (from a novel by Philip Roth), Elegy is an hour and 46 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Samuel Goldwyn Films.