Previous Philip Roth adaptations have all been problematic: Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) was too pervy, The Human Stain (2003) was miscast, and while Goodbye, Columbus (1969) had its pluses — particularly seeing Jack Klugman in a non-Oscar Madison role — the theme song by The Association was by far the highlight. The challenge lies in not only rendering cinematic Roth’s inimitable lyrical prose style but also his unflinching insight into a problematic male psyche (without seeming chauvinistic) that is struggling with myriad notions of identity: racial, religious, national, sexual and moral. His characteristic sexually charged humor is less a fixation than it is a barometer for social acceptability — the start of a long journey into the psychology of modern America.
All of which makes the success of Elegy, an adaptation of Roth’s novella The Dying Animal, all the more extraordinary. Ben Kingsley stars as David Kepsch, aging professor and theater critic, who initiates yet another affair with a student — this time with Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) — and undergoes a crisis of mortality. Through conversations with a fellow aging philanderer/writer (Dennis Hopper, who, in the film’s best scene, spoon-feeds a lovelorn Kingsley while imitating a choo-choo train), contemporary conceptions of love, sex and marriage are discontentedly deconstructed. Evoking the deep, rich hues of Velazquez and Goya, director Isabel Coixet brings a baroque elegance to her compositions — coming close to conveying Roth’s own virtuoso display of language, if inevitably falling short. Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Mayer thankfully make no significant compromises with Roth’s novella: no Terms of Endearment here, Elegy finds no sentimental closure to Kepesh’s mortality or his lingering insatiability for a physical existence.
Opens August 8.