July 24, 2008
Waxing (Philip) Roth
(Page 4 - Previous Page)Which brings us up to "Elegy." David Kepesh, played by Ben Kingsley, is a teacher, a public intellectual. The movie opens with his appearance on Charlie Rose, and he is set up as a man beyond romantic love, an intellectual's Hef, who finds his romance in promiscuity. So, naturally, he is caught off-guard when he falls in love with one of his students, Consuela, a woman 30 years his junior. And when he does, he becomes so obsessively convinced that he will lose her, sooner or later, that he sabotages the relationship. There is also a further irony, an inside joke, almost, for those who know Roth's work, because Kepesh, who venerates Consuela's breasts, is also the protagonist of an earlier Roth work, "The Breast."
Cruz is shot so lovingly in this film, it is hard to believe that she would not entrance anyone. Her work in the films of Pedro Almodóvar have demonstrated her incredible range and talents as an actress, but Coixet provides Cruz her greatest acting opportunity thus far in an English-language film (at least, that is, until Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona").
Coixet also manages to soften the hard edge of Kepesh's narcissism, that same edge that one feels in other films made from Roth's work, such as "Portnoy." Here, we understand how a man of a certain position, of a certain age, manages his private life with both a woman with whom he has had a long affair (played by Patricia Clarkson) and a younger woman.
I will not reveal the twist in the plot, and the denouement of the relationship, but intellectually it is powerful. Unfortunately, it is not as powerful on screen.
In the end, "Elegy" likely will not stand as the best adaptation of Roth's work. Roth's work continues to appeal because of the restless desire of his protagonists and the way he sets their stories against the backdrops of a given time and a given moment in his protagonist's life, as well as the way his character's sex drive acts as his life force. Roth continues to ask: If none of us get out alive, how do we go forward? And when we do, what do we make of this life and our loves?
As I write this, several of Roth's other works remain under option, including "American Pastoral," as well as his forthcoming novel, "Indignation," to be published in September by Houghton Mifflin. Perhaps one of them will transcend its provenance, to be remembered as a great film. But for that, we must still wait -- and watch.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.