Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry
Written by: Nicholas Meyer, based on a novel by Philip Roth
Directed by: Isabel Coixet
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 108
Date: 02/10/2008

Elegy (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Student Affairs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Spanish-born Isabel Coixet has done something that must have seemed impossible. First, she made a very good disease-of-the-week cancer movie with My Life Without Me (2003). Then she made a second very good disease-of-the-week cancer movie with her new Elegy. And third, she successfully adapted it from a Philip Roth novel. Roth is widely considered one of America's greatest living novelists -- if not the greatest -- and his novels are exceedingly difficult to adapt to the screen. I haven't read Roth's 2001 novel The Dying Animal, but Coixet and her screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who also adapted 2003's The Human Stain) seem to have stuck to the essence, rather than the letter, of the novel. It flows like a movie.

Ben Kingsley stars as David Kepesh, an aging professor who becomes attracted to one of his students, the Cuban-born Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz). They begin an affair, though David remains distant because of their age difference; he feels the relationship will ultimately end, so why get attached? His best friend George (Dennis Hopper) agrees. Moreover, David must keep his new love a secret from Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a beauty his own age with whom he has a long-standing sex arrangement. When David fails to show up at a party for Consuela -- he's afraid of meeting her parents -- she breaks it off. Months later, it's revealed that she has breast cancer; will David still appreciate her body after her surgery?

The cancer comes into the picture late in the third act, long after we've grown to know and love these characters, so it doesn't feel like a tear-jerking gimmick. Coixet spends her time quietly observing and actually listening to her characters. More often than not, they ask each other questions that cannot be answered, and Kingsley and Cruz both turn in grand-slam performances, especially Cruz with her ability to appear as if she's actually thinking and responding organically to each situation. Peter Sarsgaard rounds out the excellent cast as David's troubled son, who embarks on an affair and turns to his equally screwed-up father for advice. And Deborah Harry appears as George's long-suffering wife. (Sci-fi fans will know screenwriter Meyer's work on Time After Time and the Star Trek movies.)

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