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Overall Rating

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Worth A Look: 9.09%
Just Average: 9.09%
Pretty Crappy81.82%
Sucks: 0%

1 review, 5 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"More Matter With Less Art"
2 stars

The reason why the works of great authors rarely survive the transition from the page to the silver screen is very simple--no matter how skillfully the screenwriter is in telescoping the key narrative elements into a 120-page-long screenplay (150 if the film is scheduled to come out between October and December), the distinctive voice of the original author inevitably gets lost in the process (even if they do the adaptation themselves) and unless the adaptor has figured out a way to refit that voice in cinematic terms, all you are left with is little more than a series of mechanical reproductions of scenes from the book without any of the driving intelligence or emotion that made them stand out on the page in the first place. One noted author who has proven exceedingly difficult to adapt over the years has been Philip Roth and while I have never been the biggest fan of his prose--it has always come across as a little too smug and self-satisfied for my tastes (and while it could be argued that is because he is writing about smug and self-satisfied people, it seems to me that it goes much further than that)--I am willing to concede that he does indeed have a distinct storytelling voice whose absence has been keenly felt in such unsuccessful screen versions of his work as “Goodbye Columbus” and the disastrous “The Human Stain.” In bringing Roth’s 2001 novella “The Dying Animal” to the screen as “Elegy,” everyone involved with the project seems to have complete reverence for Roth and his work but alas, reverence alone is not enough to make for a successful screen adaptation and by once again failing to transform Roth’s sardonic voice from the page to the screen, all that remains is a fairly embarrassing and horribly mawkish soap opera that, save for one key element, is pretty much a wash from beginning to end.

Like “The Human Stain,” “Elegy” features at its core the unexpected relationship that develops between an aging academic portrayed by an oddly-cast Oscar-winning actor and a much younger and frequently naked woman portrayed by one of Tom Cruise’s former flames. This time around, the academic is David Kepesh, a professor of cultural criticism whose personal life since leaving his wife and child decades earlier has been a never-ending series of casual sex with his prettier students (after the semester ends, of course) and a long-running, string-free affair with a divorcee pal (Patricia Clarkson)--although he talks a good game in explaining his rationale for such behavior (striking back against hundreds of years of Puritanical repression and whatnot), it soon becomes clear that he is actually more of a self-involved jerk who indulges in this manner because of an innate inability to deal with any notions of actual commitment. Things change when he spots Consuela (Penelope Cruz), a beautiful 24-year-old Cuban-American immigrant, sitting in his latest class. At a party he throws for his students at the end of the semester, which seems to be basically an excuse to finally go after whichever one caught his eye during the term, he successfully manages to seduce her with slick words, clumsy piano playing and a framed letter from Franz Kafka and before long too long, they are in the middle of a hot and heavy affair in which David (not to mention the cinematographer) constantly waxes poetic about the perfection of her breasts, a particular fetish of his.

The problem with all of this, at least from David’s perspective, is that while he would prefer to keep their relationship on a low-key and purely physical basis (he still continues to see the divorcee), Consuela winds up spoiling everything by genuinely falling in love with him and wanting to become an important part of his life. Unwilling to make any sort of emotional commitment and apparently embarrassed by the potential ridicule that he might face because of the age difference if their relationship was made public, David refuses to make any effort with Consuela and when he thoughtlessly blows off an important engagement where he agreed to finally meet her family, she finally gives up and leaves him for good. Inevitably, it is at this point that David finally realizes that he really did love Consuela after all and he is now devastated by her absence. A couple of years later, she calls him out of the blue with a special request and what it is and why she makes it fuels the film as it moves squarely into tear-jerker territory in its final scenes.

In bringing Roth’s story to the screen, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who also adapted “The Human Stain”) and director Isabel Coixet has stuck fairly close to the plot details but have removed all the messy and vaguely unpleasant details involving David’s crude, sardonic and chauvinistic behavior, Consuela’s relatively unformed character and the potential ickiness of a highly sexualized affair between an older man and a much younger woman. The only problem is that those details, which were the elements conveyed by Roth in his authorial voice, are what made the story distinctive and without them, all you have left is a collection of romantic fiction clichés that are both profoundly uninteresting and weirdly out of date--is there anyone out there who is still profoundly shocked by the idea of an older man-younger woman romantic relationship anymore? (Trust me, the sight of Ben Kingsley making out with Mary-Kate Olsen in the execrable “The Wackness” was far more transgressive than anything on display here and that film was about as transgressive as a case of flat Zima.) Not helping matters much is the fact that Ben Kingsley is simply not very good here as David--while Kingsley seems to be making a conscious effort to get his recently wayward career back on track (his performances in “You Kill Me” and “Transsiberian” were both excellent), he is just not convincing for a second as either a self-involved academic lech or as a heartbroken old man who belatedly realizes that he has let the love of his life slip away from him as a result of his own inexplicable behavior. Ironically, if the character of David has maintained the rough edges found in the original novella, I can see Kingsley pulling it off but sadly, his performance is as defanged as the material.

The one aspect of “Elegy” that works beautifully--in every sense of the word--is the performance by Penelope Cruz as Consuela. Yes, there is the unavoidable fact that she is at least a decade too old for the role (which has the added effect of making David’s fears about the age difference seem even more absurd) but I was willing to give that a pass simply because of the powerful and moving work that she contributes. Over the years, Cruz has been underrated as an actress, partly because of her extraordinary beauty and partly because her initial difficulties with the English language led to some tentative performances in the early American films where most people in this country first got a look at her. In the last couple of years, starting with he justly acclaimed performance in “Volver,” she has developed into one of the more effective actresses working today and as “Elegy” shows, she is now capable of delivering performances in English that are as strong as the ones she does in Spanish. Under ordinary circumstances, I might be tempted to tentatively recommend this film based solely on the strength of her performance. However, “Elegy” has the bad luck to arrive in theaters at the exact same time as Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” another film with a great Cruz performance and one with the added benefit of being an excellent work in its own right. Therefore, unless you are either a Penelope Cruz completeist or someone who wants to study just how wrong a book can go when it heads for the silver screen, I would like to take this time to advise you to give “Elegy” a pass and go see “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” instead.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17458&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/22/08 00:00:00
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User Comments

2/06/10 mr.mike Still worth seeing but too much soap opera brings it down. 4 stars
3/30/09 DrDanny Worth it just for Cruz's work (and bod!) 3 stars
1/11/09 Shaun Wallner Very Boring! 2 stars
8/25/08 tania worst soap opera.not belieavable.exploitation of cruzes boobs 2 stars
8/25/08 Will The whole thing seemed very poorly written for something that was originally a book. 2 stars
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  08-Aug-2008 (R)
  DVD: 17-Mar-2009


  DVD: 17-Mar-2009

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