Adapted by Nicholas Meyer from Philip Roth's novel, The Dying Animal, Elegy is the story of a contemplative but sadly selfish college professor who recognizes with frustration and repressed anger that his life has turned into its home stretch. David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is a charismatic teacher of cultural studies. His books have landed him on Charlie Rose, and he's a regular contributor to The New Yorker and commentator for NPR. In intellectual circles, he's famous and successful. He is also a lonely, empty man. Long ago he walked out on his wife when their son was still a child. Today the son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), is an accomplished physician, but he has never forgiven David, even though we perceive a desire for reconciliation.
David has sustained a lifelong, confidential camaraderie with his squash partner and drinking buddy, prize-winning poet George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper). Both are too cool to admit it, but we come to understand that these two old satyrs mean more to each other than either is willing to acknowledge. But for the most part, David has filled his days with work and his bed with a series of younger women intoxicated by his classroom erudition but not brought to his apartment until after grades have been posted. He's had a two-decade, at least marginally satisfying relationship with a former student named Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), who has become a powerhouse businesswoman, but she lives on the west coast. They see each other only occasionally, and it's clear to both of them that their relationship will never flower beyond its intermittent status.
Currently, David has his lustful eyes set on Consuela Constillo (Penelope Cruz), a Cuban-American graduate student in one of his classes. When David spies Consuela with her slightly formal manners, her schoolgirl bangs and her intellectual eagerness, he wants only to turn on his reliable professorial charm so as to seduce her. But a terribly upending development occurs between evening cocktails and morning coffee: David actually falls in love with Consuela. And this is more disconcerting than the inevitably decaying course of his routine conquests. David is more than 30 years older than Consuela, and he is convinced he could never hold on to the affections of someone as bright and beautiful as Consuela (and Cruz has never seemed brighter or more luminously beautiful). This unprecedented insecurity, born of uncharacteristic caring, leads David to behave in ways counter to his own interest.
Stemming from Roth's novel, which wrestles with ideas that have also concerned the writer in Sabbath's Theater and elsewhere, Elegy is extensively a reflection on aging. In his role as narrator, David quotes Bette Davis' observation that "Old age is not for sissies," and Tolstoy's assertion that "Old age is the biggest surprise man faces because in his head, nothing has changed." David also admits that he's jumped from one relationship to the next since his marriage ended because the young girls in his bed remained the same age and "made him feel that time wasn't passing." In short, David's relentless tom-catting is a frantic grasp for youth, and however much we more traditional types may disapprove of his lifestyle, we can sympathize with his dismay at the toll time inevitably takes.
The power of Elegy proceeds from its sympathetic understanding of the human condition and from the film's splendid performances. Patricia Clarkson is excellent as always, heartbreaking in Carolyn's admission that men no longer look at her the way they once did. Sarsgaard's wounded eyes capture the hurt and yearning that define Ken's relationship with his father. Cruz is a wonder, the best she's ever been, her Consuela the film's ultimate hero. And Kingsley is brilliant. One wouldn't think the same actor could play Gandhi and the murderous thug Don Logan in Sexy Beast. But he has. One wouldn't think that, graying and bald, he could be convincing as a sexual Olympian. But he is. As he's supposed to, his David is the kind of man you shouldn't like, but you do.