by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

As I watched this movie I was convinced that it must be a literary adaptation. It has all the necessary components. It floats through the rarefied atmosphere of literary criticism and artistic theory. Scenes are  backed by a classical piano score which is simple, elegant, and melancholy. It ends with the right amount of ambiguity to invite the viewer to construct an appropriate ending, and to debate that theoretical outcome with a companion. It is narrated with refined phrases and pithy observations.

What surprised me is that it is adapted from a novel by Philip Roth. Not that Roth is incapable of refinement. He's a brilliant guy whose work is multi-faceted. But one does not normally associate him with the kind of meditative politesse that characterizes this film. His work has a kind of primal, brutal, sexual energy that drives all of his literary alter egos into impolite, obsessive rhapsodies about lust. I would never have recognized Elegy as a Roth adaptation.

I haven't read the source novel, called "The Dying Animal" (as I just found out), but I assume it was too complex and included too much first person narration to allow for a simple, literal adaptation, and that the screenwriter needed to find a way to focus it. As you know, many different kinds of movies can come out of a complex book, depending on the screenwriter's focus. Consider, for example, the two adaptations of Lolita: Kubrick's snarky wallow in the book's sleazy comedy and glorious wordplay; and Adrian Lyne's somber, sad portrayal of a man making an ill-fated and inappropriate attempt to recreate something beautiful and poignant that he lost in childhood and could never regain. There's one very sad movie and one very funny one there, yet both of them are quite accurate reflections of different facets of an opalescent book.

I guess what I'm saying here is that there are probably many different ways one might interpret Roth's book. In this case, the screenwriter and the director seem to have created the Masterpiece Theater version of the book by downplaying Roth's carnality and earthy language while elevating the role of his obsessive self-analysis.

Ben Kingsley plays an elderly literature professor who is basically retired except for a prestigious sinecure which requires him to teach only one class per year. He uses his minor fame and major charm to seduce one co-ed per year, and has set his current sights on a Cuban-American beauty named Consuela. After dazzling her with his depth, which is the orchestration he uses to waltz her into bed, he finds that his relationship with her is not like those with his previous conquests. There is much more than mere lust.  At his advanced age, after having created a personal philosophy that rejects the concept of romantic love, he finds himself enslaved to it. Then he must, as must we all, revise his philosophy to conform to his circumstances. This proves difficult. He is inept at love. He is jealous, possessive, and uneasy. Although it is clear that he and Consuela love one another, the professor cannot bring himself to meet her family, and she finally drops him from her life after he offers some particularly flimsy lies about why he missed a family event he had promised to attend. As is his wont, he deals with his pain by adjusting his personal philosophy yet again, accommodating his circumstances to the belief that the young woman was bound to drop him sooner or later anyway, because she's bound to begin to notice the inherent liabilities in loving a man 35 years older than she. We feel some empathy for the lonely old man he is becoming, but no sympathy, for we can see that he has created his own loneliness.

That part of the film moves with a deliberate pace and a lifelessness that seems totally uncharacteristic of Philip Roth, but the story takes a final twist in which the professor strives to redeem himself. Although overwhelmed by his sense of loss, he honors his promise not to call Consuela again, and he offers himself fully when she calls him some years later with an urgent message. Through a too-convenient plot twist, Consuela becomes older than he, in the sense of closer to death, and this seems to be the shock he needs to shake off his solipsism and attempt a true intimate relationship in which he can sometimes place another's needs above his own. He seems to be succeeding as the film ends. Maybe.

The film offers some interesting insights along the way. Roth is an acute observer, and some of his observations are held intact here, either in the film's narration, or in some dialogues between the Kingsley character and another elderly scholar, a poet with a Pulitzer, as played very effectively by Dennis Hopper. Many insights rang true with me. The professor notes, for example, that unfamiliar 20-year-old women look just as appealing when a man is 60 as when he is 20, while unfamiliar 60-year-old women look just as old as they ever did, making it difficult to reconcile an old man's desires with his capabilities. This fact of life can be a source of both tragedy and comedy.

Dennis Hopper was a revelation in his secondary role. He has spent his entire career playing movie archetypes rather than real human beings, and it surprised me to see just how good he was at simple, credible situations and sensible, intelligent conversations. He had no trouble convincing me that he was an esteemed poet. He should have shown this side of himself years earlier, or perhaps I should say that somebody should have given him a chance to show this side. I liked Hopper's scenes immensely, but he didn't really get much of a chance to develop the character. In fact, the character was really just an exposition device, used to give Kingsley somebody to talk to so he wouldn't always be narrating in voice-over. Other characters remained similarly undefined, like the professor's son, whose life must have supplied an important sub-plot in the book, but who seems like a trivial, virtually unnecessary character in the movie.

Overall, the movie didn't really work for me. I found it oh-too-precious, too slow, and utterly lacking in both passion and warmth. Many critics disagreed strongly. Roger Ebert gave it three stars. James Berardinelli topped that at three and a half, and Owen Gleiberman of EW dished out the full four-star monty, saying "There's a poetic irony to the idea that it took a female filmmaker to finally do justice to Philip Roth on screen." I don't agree with what he's saying there. At least I don't think I do. If he means it took a woman to make the first good movie based on a Roth book, I have to concede that it is a legitimate argument, but if he means the woman captured the true essence of Roth ... well, I think I've already expressed my feelings about that. I don't think any Roth book has been described as "precious, slow, and lacking in passion."

Elegy is like one of those "prestige dramas" that inevitably get rushed to the theaters in the last week of December to establish Oscar eligibility. By their inherent nature, prestige dramas have a tiny audience. In this case, the audience consists of those who really have a need to wallow in melancholy reflections about aging and dying, and the differences between those two ominous participles. If you do feel that need, the film offers a somber, thoughtful, articulate overview of those topics.


* widescreen anamorphic








3.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
3 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
86 Metacritic  (of 100)
74 Rotten Tomatoes (% positive)








7.2 IMDB summary (of 10)
B- Yahoo Movies









Box Office Mojo. It grossed about 3/4 of a million in the USA in an art house run (92 theaters), and about four million overseas.









  • Penelope Cruz shows her breasts several times, including twice in good light. The camera also pans down her entire back side while she is stark naked except for high heels, thus revealing her entire bottom, but from an oblique angle.
  • Patricia Clarkson shows a brief breast in each of two scenes, once while coming to bed, once in a sex scene. 


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Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


A thoughtful movie which may engage your head, but will probably not really connect with you.