Not every book is meant to be adapted into a movie. Come to think of it, not every author is meant for celluloid success. Philip Roth has won pretty much every major book prize, save for the Nobel, and he's overdue for that. His books masterfully examine the fragile side of the middle-aged male ego, and how sex and family and desire eat away at men's souls. With Updike, Mailer, and Bellow gone, Roth is the messiah of American literature.
There's just one problem: Books like his make crappy movies. Roth said as much to GQ's Andrew Corsello, adding that he hasn't been pleased with any of the adaptations, especially The Human Stain. Roth's take: "Awful! And the same people have American Pastoral."
I know that producers are always looking for big, important books to make into bigger, more important movies, which is why The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is on its way to the theaters. That's fine if it gets people reading. But Roth's books (and I've read many of them) are driven by internal struggles. It's the same reason why Stanley Kubrick's Lolita didn't work. (That, and there were no explosions or car chases.) Every part of Roth's writing is so intricate and measured that a director can't just transfer the written page to the screen. Unless you have a masterful director, a great screenwriter, and gifted actors, you're going to get ham-fisted acting showcases or ponderous life meditations. The former happened to Robert Benton when he adapted The Human Stain, and the latter nearly happens in Elegy, director Isabel Coixet's take on Roth's The Dying Animal.
Professor and cultural critic David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) --"a rake among scholars, a scholar among rakes," according to Roth -- eyes sultry student Consuela Castillo (Cruz) in his class and makes it his mission to get her. Kepesh does, which is incredible considering she's some 30 years his junior and way out of his league. Typical of a Roth character, Kepesh wants to have his cake and eat it too. He certainly wants -- possesses is actually a better word -- Consuela, but on his terms. That means he wants to maintain his independence -- including his long-term sex buddy (Patricia Clarkson) -- and his space.
Besides, Kepesh's last attempt at domesticity was an utter failure, leaving him with an ex-wife and a very bitter son (Sarsgaard). Consuela genuinely loves Kepesh, but the man's self-doubt and raging insecurity allows him to gradually sabotage the relationship, which ironically turns Kepesh into a human being capable of love.
The leads give great performances, especially Kingsley, who embodies the virile angst that defines Roth's characters. He thrives inside the shades of grey. And director Coixet examines the dark side of the male ego with complete confidence and insight -- for about an hour. Then the movie runs out of ideas, and efforts to jog the proceedings (the presence of Sarsgaard; the death of a major character) can't get it back on track. Essentially, we get a character study stretched beyond effectiveness.
Still, the movie is worth seeing if only for the first-rate performances and the movie's fierce intelligence. It'll make you want to read Roth, and see how the master paints on his own smaller canvas. Bigger, as always, isn't always better.
Let's go for ice cream.