Philip Roth’s novella The Dying Animal is a strange choice for a movie adaptation. A brief coda to Roth’s Professor of Desire series about the sex-obsessed David Kepesh, who in the first book, The Breast, transformed himself into a giant mammary gland, the book doesn’t naturally lend itself to dramatic treatment. It’s basically a monologue in which college professor Kepesh recalls his affair with a beautiful Cuban-American student 38 years his junior, who ended their relationship and then returned to him several years later under sad circumstances.
Director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) evidently saw this slender, phallocentric story as a tender romance, and has made it into a glossy drama with the unusual casting choice of Ben Kingsley — currently starring in nearly every movie in the theaters — as Kepesh. Kingsley is a fine actor, if a bit overexposed, but making Kepesh an Englishman is a bad, bad idea; he sounds unbelievably awkward lamenting that is lover never begged for his “cawk.”
Penélope Cruz is lovely as Consuela Castillo, the object of Kepesh’s desire, though she doesn’t quite evoke the voluptuous young siren whose breasts drove Roth’s Kepesh into an erotic frenzy. The supporting roles are better: Peter Sarsgaard is intense as Kepesh’s resentful son, Patricia Clarkson is fine in the small role of Kepesh’s longtime bedmate, and Dennis Hopper is delightful as Kepesh’s friend, poet George O’Hearn. (Just the idea of Hopper as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is a kick.) Former Blondie singer Debbie Harry shows up briefly as the womanizing George’s long-suffering wife.
The cinematography, by the director with Jean-Claude Larrieu, is pretty, if occasionally succumbing to visual cliché, and the soundtrack is filled with tasteful classical music, reflecting Kepesh’s interest in playing the piano. Ho-hum. The film’s overall approach is arthouse-tasteful, wildly inappropriate for the risqué Roth, like a Masterpiece Theatre version of Portnoy’s Complaint.
There also isn’t enough story to sustain a feature film; the book consists entirely of Kepesh’s interior musings about eroticism and aging, difficult things to exteriorize, though screenwriter Nicholas Meyer makes an admirable effort to flesh things out. Coixet’s My Life Without Me was about a woman dying of cancer, and that may be a theme that attracts this director. But Roth’s book really isn’t a tragedy about cancer; it's a cri de coeur by an aging Lothario.
Technical gloss and high-quality acting will make this arthouse entry seem like a good movie, but Elegy is considerably less profound than it thinks it is.
Appeared in a slightly different form in the Cleveland Scene.