Written by Nicholas Meyer and directed by Isabel Coixet, “Elegy” is based on the novel “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth, and connoisseurs will recognize the litany of Roth’s themes instantly: age and youth, men and women, sex and death. “The biggest surprise in a man’s life is old age”, says the narrator, David Kepesh, one of Roth’s signature creations, played here by Ben Kingsley. He teaches a class on Barthes, owns a framed letter of Kafka, knows painting and architecture. This is the story of what happens when he targets one of his beautiful young students to woo (Penélope Cruz, with her soft Spanish accent). He does this every year, but this time it’s different: he’s besotted. Meanwhile, Kepesh’s grown son (Peter Sarsgaard) still seeths over his father’s abandonment of him and his mother, and an affecting Dennis Hopper plays the prof’s best friend on the faculty (and fellow aging womanizer).
As Kepesh, Kingsley gives us a portrait of the archetypal faithless intellectual male, the type who before achieving prominence was homely, awkward. It’s all conjecture, but his sundry trysts suggest to me a wounded background; it’s this that saves him from being despicable. As an aesthete he takes great pleasure in beauty, be it found in art or in women, but in a way the subject of “Elegy” is the blindness of the male gaze, especially when it comes to women. Hopper puts it succinctly: “Beautiful women are invisible—we never see the person.” Patricia Clarkson, playing Kepesh’s lover of his own generation, confides in him the scary fact of her life: soon, she knows, men won’t really see her at all. And though we know the hard facts of death and disease are one of Philip Roth’s subjects, it still comes as a surprise the way they arrive in this movie. “Elegy” is true to his vision for his characters: brutal truth yet shot through with the moments they felt most alive.
After momentarily dying while on the operating table, a misanthropic dentist (Ricky Gervais) is able to see the ghosts of people who have unfinished business here on earth, such as Greg Kinnear, who conscripts Ricky to keep his widow (Téa Leoni) away from another man. Contemporary Hollywood rom-com is the one genre I can’t stick at any price, but as Ricky Gervais is one of my comedy heroes, I had to check out this attempt to introduce him to the American masses. In fact the film is driven by an interesting contrast between the exigencies of formulaic, mainstream rom-com and the sly wit and irony of the kind of comedy Gervais was getting up to on “The Office” and “Extras”. He didn’t auteur this, but still we get some signature Gervais: that pathetic overbite that I hadn’t seen since the David Brent days (Brent being the “seedy boss” character he originated on the original British version of “The Office”, and which Steve Carell now plays so drolly in the American version), the foot-in-mouth comment riding in over a burbling giggle, even the inventive way he plays with his hair in the mirror before a date. Téa Leoni makes a fetchingly offbeat romantic interest, intelligent, with a laugh that occasionally erupts into a snort. Those who complain that it’s not edgy should understand that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of Gervais’ favorite films. He cherishes classic Hollywood, and “Ghost Town” is a slight but moving and classy entry in that tradition.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
- Oct 15, 2008