September 3, 2008

300 Words About: Elegy

At different times in my life I've considered pursuing a career as a college professor, but after seeing the lives illustrated on screen in 2008 by Dennis Quaid in Smart People, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, and Ben Kingsley in Isabel Coixet's Elegy, I'm not sure if I'm up for it. What is it about teaching higher education that causes crippling depression and social anxiety?

In the case of David Kepesh (Kingsley- The Wackness, Transsiberian), it's a torturous affair with one of his students, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona). David fears that Consuela is too young and attractive and that she'll leave him for a younger beau at any time. But feel no pity for him- he walked out on his wife and young son (Peter Sarsgaard - Rendition) years ago, and has spent two decades in bed with countless women, none so faithfully frequent as his one-time student Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson - Vicky Cristina Barcelona). In between lectures and affairs, David commiserates with his poet friend George (Dennis Hopper - Sleepwalking), himself no model of fidelity.

Who are these people in real life, and how can I avoid them in the future? It's hard enough to watch their lives crumble on screen, so I can't imagine immersing myself in Philip Roth's novel
(appropriately titled "The Dying Animal") . I'm sure there are many people who find comfort in sharing the tragedies of these characters, but empathy mostly escaped me in this case, especially if it was meant to be directed at David Kepesh. In some ways, I saw Elegy as a twisted sequel to About a Boy - what would happen if Will (Hugh Grant) never learned his life lesson?

Despite the sorrow and pain, there are bright spots in Elegy. The ensemble cast, led by Kingsley and Cruz, just about bowled me over. I've not seen any other films directed by Coixet, but she certainly took advantage of the talent and experience of her actors. Additionally, I thought the cinematography matched the overall tone very well. We could observe the emotions without being forced to experience it with manipulative camera work or overbearing use of color and light. Unfortunately I can't speak positively of the editing - Elegy is about half an hour too long.

All in all, the award-worthy acting makes Elegy mostly engaging, but your reaction to it may ultimately depend on your ability to gain any hopeful insight from such a severely depressing parable.


  1. What -- did they get a package deal? Two "Vicky Cristina" stars for the price of one?

  2. Why do movies so often go on too long and hardly ever the other way around? There aren't too many movies that are followed by me remarking "that could have used an extra thirty minutes."

    Remember Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in 25th Hour? He was another college professor who's tempted to sleep with one of his students and whose life is pretty much sad and crappy.

    Makes me worried to continue on my career path...


  3. Interesting coincidence, right, Rick? And Kingsley - well there could presumably be a theater screening The Wackness, Elegy, and Transsiberian at the same time. Pretty bizarre.

    Haha, good question, Scott. Even the best movies are never "too short".

    I don't know what to tell you - keep a healthy hobby in the future?

  4. Daniel - I'm not so sure the best movies aren't too short. I feel sometimes like I'd like them to go on forever, so much do I like the characters and the story. It's like slowing down at the end of a really good book to forestall the end.

    Academia certainly does take a pounding in the arts. I wonder if its not something of the "those who can do, those who can't teach" stereotype, not seeing teaching as a calling in and of itself. So, too, the cliche of an insular, boring small town in which liberal arts schools always seem to be situated. Very few academic films or books really grapple with the world outside, or if they do (The Human Stain) the issues are so dated you wonder why they bother.

    The only play/film I can think of that deals with a contemporary issue involving a college professor is Oleanna, not a great work, but at least relevant and oddly compelling.

  5. Daniel -

    Your opening paragraph had me literally nodding my head in agreement.

    I often wonder why there are no movies about well-adjusted, emotionally stable college professors who get along well with their families and students. Wouldn't you just once like to see a film about a college professor who was a really great, happy guy? I know I would.

    Even so, I do plan to see "Elegy" at some point in the next week - for Kingsley and Cruz, if for no other reasons.

  6. I only get this in December coz I missed the press screening. How sucky is that?!

  7. Ah, Marilyn - I love that comparison to a good book!

    Interesting thoughts on academia. Heck, even when it's not a college professor it's still rough - Half Nelson, Election, etc.

    Speaking of The Human Stain - also written by Philip Roth, I believe. I haven't seen Oleanna, but Mamet's involvement intrigues me (yes, I still haven't learned after Redbelt).

    You got it, Pat - there are few other reasons than those two performances. Their chemistry was actually better than I would have expected. I also loved Sarsgaard, Clarkson, and Hopper.

    Nick - pretty sucky. But hey, at least you're getting invited to press screenings?

  8. I liked this one to a point. Mainly I liked the acting by Kingsley and Cruz and it helps me to forgive the fact I didn't like any of the characters or especially care about them.

    There was a sense in the end that Kingsley had learned the error of his ways so I felt better about it.


    well this may end soon but since last week the angelika houston has been showing elegy/the wackiness/ and transsiberian.

    ha ha. someone look it before it changes because no one is gonna believe this.

  10. I neither liked Kingley's performance, nor the saturated melodrama that doomed the film in the final reel. No Phillip Roth novel has ever translated into a successful film. But I'll admit that both Cruz and Clarkson were most effective. I think you nailed the depression angle quite well, posing that concept of abandoning a foray into university teaching, as we have seen a number of cases where crisis develops.
    I really that the 300 worder was most apt here, as there really isn't much more to say on this film. Nice work as usual.

  11. Wow, I wrote my review and posted it today after seeing this late last night, and here you make several of the same points I do about depressed professors! Very interesting, Daniel.

    Good review. We even agreed about it being about 30 minutes too long. Towards the end it just dragged on and on.

  12. While I don't deny that Kingsley's character appeared to come around somewhat at the end, Craig, it was still pretty painful to think about how long he had lived "that way."

    Thanks for finding that, glim! Pretty funny occurrence - I don't even know when that would have happened last.

    Sam, my friend Matt didn't like Kingsley here either, so I knew it didn't ring true for everyone. I also agree that the ending was overcooked. I still need to read everyone else's reviews, but based on what you, Craig, and Alexander say, there isn't too much to dig up with this one. I'll read yours all shortly.

  13. I really enjoyed the film, but then again I also liked the much maligned THE HUMAN STAIN. I found it mostly compelling and loved the performances, but I didn't like Kingsley's narration at all. And I never believed the relationship between Kingsley and Sarsgaard. That part just didn't really work for me.

  14. I enjoyed The Human Stain, too, thought it was much better than its reviews. The book, though, felt turgid to me.

  15. Matthew, I thought Sarsgaard was the only one guilty of a potential overacting job, but I still liked the two playing off of each other, even if the last scene in his office was beyond awkward.

    I didn't see The Human Stain, but both of your recommendations are trustworthy. I guess I figured it would be as depressing as it sounded - and as Elegy is.

  16. I don't think they really gave Sarsgaard time to register. I thought his character was underdeveloped and showed up way too late to make much of an impact. It seemed kind of like an afterthought.

  17. True that he really came late to the game. I can't argue with that. Really, had it been another actor I might not have cared, but I let my fandom of Sarsgaard overshadow and undevelopment of the character.

  18. Seeing Saarsgard is a big selling point for this movie for me. I know he's not really featured, but are you saying he's barely there?

    The man is in DIRE need of a starring role. Mrs. Fletch and I are both big fans of his, and I'm sick of seeing him in the buddy role. I heart him so much in Shattered Glass it's not funny.

  19. I would say he has about 10-15 minutes of screen time, and is probably the most minor supporting character. As I said to Matthew, though, if I found that enough time to enjoy him, I would imagine you would as well. The guy is always the brightest spot the movies he's in, like Shattered Glass, Kinsey, even Rendition(ugh..). But I would recommend seeing Elegy for Kingsley, Cruz, Clarkson, and Hopper anyway.

    I think Sarsgaard could carry a movie - just needs to be the right one, and a good one.

  20. Elgringo - I remember wishing that I Am Legend had been 20 minutes longer or so. There was a lot of untapped material there. That's the only film that springs to mind, though. I'm a broken record when it comes to films overstaying their welcome - I feel like just about every movie I see these days is a half hour too long.

    Saw this last night. It had a few memorable lines/scenes, but I found myself deathly bored through much of it, nearly nodding off a few times as well. The trailer told a great story...then they blew up the run time by 60x without really adding much of anything. Ugh.

  21. Never saw the trailer, but I agree that the length of some scenes lent themselves well to possible dozing opportunities.

    How did Sarsgaard meet your expectations?

  22. His character got to play one mood. Weak. In fact, I thought all of the characters outside Kingsley's were vastly underwritten.

    Mostly, tohugh, we were bothered by how thick he seemed (phsycially), and I was having trouble buying him as a 40-year old father of three (he's in fact 37). Still, it threw me off - this is the guy that was playing a mid-20s slacker in Garden State five years ago.

  23. lol, that's a really good point about Garden State. I think he was supposed to be young in Kinsey, too. It's funny when I think about it, I just kind of see him as somebody who never ages. So yeah, I guess an over-the-hill dad is a bit of a tougher sell than I considered.

  24. Okay, so I finally got to see this and…I didn’t like it. For the most part. I don’t know why, it was boring and pretentious. I’ll write a review one of these days, probably when my exams are over which is in December.

    Funnily enough, I saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona too, and loved Patricia Clarkson and Cruz in both.

  25. Well between the two movies there's no doubt which one is more enjoyable, Nick. That's for sure. Same goes for both of their characters, even though they're completely similar.

    I've mostly forgotten about Elegy. I still think the Kingsley-Cruz connection, when it was believable, was really the only highlight in the movie.


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