The cinema has not served Philip Roth well.
Other important American writers have had excellent movies made from their novels: Michael Chabon had “Wonder Boys,” John Updike, “The Witches of Eastwick,” and John Irving “The World According to Garp” and “The Cider House Rules.”
Of Mr. Roth’s couple dozen novels, only a few have made it onto the big screen. The last was 2003’s critical and commercial stinker “The Human Stain.”
The good news is that “Elegy,” the adaptation of Mr. Roth’s novel “The Dying Animal,” is a pretty good film.
The bad news, though, is that it bears only superficial resemblance to the work that gave it life.
“Elegy,” the book and the movie, is told through the lips of David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), a professor and public intellectual who’s rather satisfied with his life. He’s something of a celebrity — in an amusing sequence, the film opens with the man being interviewed by Charlie Rose — and he’s got all the accouterments that go with fame. His Manhattan apartment is impeccably furnished, and the upper-level class he teaches gives him access to adoring, beautiful young female students he can bed once the class ends.
One of those students finally disrupts this easy existence. Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) seems at first like all the others. She’s attracted to the older man because he’s smart, educated, cultured and can teach her about life. It’s Consuela who ultimately instructs David, though — in emotional truths he’s never even considered before.
The divorced David has been happy to have his affairs with no strings attached. In fact, one former student, Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), still hops into his bed every now and then some 20 years after they first met. Yet something about Consuela’s particular beauty, and the way the Cuban immigrant handles herself, unhinges David. He becomes subject to a sexual possessiveness he’s never felt before.
It’s an old theme: older man constantly imagines his young conquest will be swept off her feet by a younger, more virile competitor. What made it fresh in “The Dying Animal” was the nature of that older man. Mr. Roth’s David Kepesh voiced thoughts that would have disgusted his young lovers, had they been privy to them. David’s attitude toward women is, simply put, offensive.
In Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s film, however, David comes off as immensely sympathetic. He’s more of an everyman than a singular creation. “The Dying Animal” seemed like an indictment; “Elegy” feels like a touching love story.
As far as it goes, it’s enjoyable enough. Miss Cruz isn’t as memorable here as she is in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” the Woody Allen film that opened last week. However, it’s easy to see why any man would become obsessed with her.
Mr. Kingsley is a stronger presence. The best scenes are those in which he interacts with his son (Peter Sarsgaard) and best friend (Dennis Hopper). Here, some of the fun in Mr. Roth’s novel finally shines through. “You’re so morally superior to me, even our adulteries can’t compare,” David tells his grown son, who has troubles of his own. “Yours plays the oboe.”
RATING: R (sexuality, nudity and language)