Some stories have an easy time explaining romantic relationships. Take Romeo and Juliet for instance — it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to imagine two hot, young Italian teens shacking up and getting a little carried away. However, when Elegy's aging professor and playboy David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) falls just as hard for a seemingly unremarkable student, some narrative assistance would've been appreciated.
Part of the problem is that Elegy's characters are straight analogues for the sexual philosophies of their generations. Kepesh, whose non-committal stance on relationships and love is a holdover from the ’60s and ’70s, finds himself as a man out of his time. The freedom and independence he embraced have led to a life of emotional isolation. His son (Peter Sarsgaard), still resentful of his absentee father, attempts honesty in his marriage and infidelity, owning up to his affair and forcing himself to commit to one woman or the other. The precociously-accented Consuelo Castillo (Penelope Cruz) acts as a foil to Kepesh; she's also a relic of an era passed, representing the innocence of a traditional, conservative conception of love, quaintly embodied in her old-world family (the sexual revolution never got to Cuba apparently).
Castillo and Kepesh become an item, and what unfolds is a mixture of effective melodrama, flat social commentary, and predictable plot twists. Kingsley plays the part adequately; his ravenous lust, or what we're to believe is love, for his younger sweetheart is always visible in an ever-present, wide-eyed stare.
It's a huge flaw of the film that Kepesh comes off as unlikable and impenetrable — of course, that's kind of the point. The story is an adaptation of the Phillip Roth short novel The Dying Animal, the third to feature David Kepesh. A brief synopsis of the first says a lot about the character: in 1972's The Breast, the flesh-obsessed prof literally becomes a walking tit. There the critique is evident, but here it is much more vague. For example, Kepesh and his friend, poet George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper), chat about their admiration of the female form without ever really engaging it (except in the bedroom). At one point, the professor compares Castillo to a Goya painting found in one of his many expensive-looking hardbound books; it's no wonder that both he and the film treat her more like an image than a person.
Coixet's lilting camera, which often peers around corners and objects, gives a kind of fly-on-the-wall intimacy to certain scenes, while other times evokes a bored moviegoer nodding off to sleep. Ultimately, the idea that "a beautiful woman is invisible" — which embodies the misogynist, patronizing attitude of Kepesh and O'Hearn — is reflected in Coixet's inability to penetrate her female characters. One small victory, however: the unexpected demise of Hemingway-esque O'Hearn places Hopper against his ’60s, Easy Rider archetype and delivers an emotional comment on the costs of seemingly innocuous lifestyle choices. Namely, that any course of action — marriage, divorce, or "emancipated" bachelorhood — leads to an ultimately finite life of roads untaken.