Philip Roth is a generation older than the baby boomers, but it’s significant that David Kepesh, the protagonist and confessor of The Dying Animal—the 2001 novel that is now the fourth Roth work to be adapted for the screen, under the gentler title Elegy—states that the sexual revolution of the 60s has been a central influence in his life, and that it encouraged him to leave his wife and family for his true desire: free love, i.e., no-frills fucking. Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who previously penned the film version of Roth’s The Human Stain) emphasize Kepesh’s boomer credentials to an even greater degree than their source material’s author, beginning Elegy with an interview of Kepesh by Charlie Rose. Kepesh, a college literature professor and radio show host, is on to promote his latest book, a study of how America’s roots are not solely puritanical, that an early colony—a sort of bizarro Plymouth—reveled in paganism and debauchery before being quashed by repressive traditionalists. This colony offers a model of sexual “freedom” that serves Kepesh well during his generation’s brief Summer of Love and beyond, but it’s fitting that Rose equates its founder to Hugh Hefner. Behind the veneer of freedom lies immature, self-satisfied emotional isolation, and that’s where the sexually arrested Kepesh resides.
That Ben Kingsley is cast, surprisingly, as Kepesh is also significant. Replacing Roth’s unmistakably Semitic alter ego—like Portnoy and Zuckerman, one of the author’s signature postwar avatars of Jewish-American male neuroses—with an actor exemplifying Anglo uprightness and capital C culture (and whose history of Jewish and Middle Eastern roles nevertheless allows for a certain amount of ethnic wiggle room), Coixet and Meyer have subtly made Kepesh’s ensuing dilemma that of the old white world’s thinly veiled sexual hypocrisy getting carried kicking and screaming into modern, moral evolution. Kepesh finds himself falling in love with what should have been another classroom conquest, Cuban-American student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz, a little too old for this role, but so what?). Jealous and paranoid of the thought of a younger man taking her away but unable to overcome his fear of commitment to a woman who seems to truly love him, he cruelly breaks off with her, descending into navel-gazing self-pity until he realizes his post-married life has been one of uncompromising egotism disguised as “independence.”
Conventional wisdom says that Elegy will prove hopelessly unfashionable to audiences and critics. It’s bourgeois, mostly humorless, and arrives in the trappings of highbrow Literatoor (as Roth himself deemed it in The Great American Novel), which may rope in the Brideshead Revisited crowd before disappointing them with a May-December romance from a male point of view, a potentially embarrassing throwback that usually imparts the valorization, rather than dissection, of out-of-whack sexual politics. Yet Elegy is also a throwback in the best sense. It’s honest, beautifully subdued, and, up until a lame departure from Roth’s original ending, tough.