Philip Roth is the poet laureate of the modern male id, so I was curious to see what a female director might do with The Dying Animal, the author’s 2001 meditation on aging, obsession and lust. Isabel Coixet, the Spanish filmmaker who gave us My Life Without Me, certainly didn’t hold back in reshaping her pedigreed source material. She’s all but gutted Roth’s book, and the small portion that has made it to the screen amounts to the equivalent of a somewhat more literate than average Lifetime Channel weepie.
Which is a shame, because there’s all kinds of potential for greatness here. The screenplay by Nicholas Meyer has flashes of brilliance and dark wit. The cast is a singularly intriguing mix of personalities — how wrong can you go with an ensemble that includes Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard and Deborah Harry? And that’s on top of first stringers Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz and Patricia Clarkson. Coixet, for her part, has a gift for painterly composition. Her film is a feast for the eyes. Its tone and style, unfortunately, have little to do with the novella it adapts.
Sir Ben plays a New York writer and professor who’s achieved a modest degree of celebrity by reviewing books on NPR and hosting a local television show called “Book Chat.” He is 70 as the movie opens, and what follows are reflections on an affair he had with a grad student eight years before. His character, David Kepesh, is a figure who was the subject of two earlier works by Roth — The Breast (1972) and The Professor of Desire (1977). His area of expertise is, quite literally, hedonism.
We see Kepesh early on discussing the hard-living, free-loving habits of Colonial Americans with Charlie Rose. He is an authority on the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. His adult life, in fact, has been a sustained exercise in liberation: He long ago walked out on his wife and young son in order to devote himself without distraction to pleasures of both the mind and the flesh.
Each year Kepesh selects one of his students for seduction, and the student who is the object of rumination here, a Cuban-American named Consuela, is played by Penelope Cruz. The movie neglects to provide the explanation offered in the book as to what might motivate a 24-year-old beauty to encourage the advances of a man so many years her senior. Roth writes of the anointing power television possesses over young people raised in this media-dominated age. Coixet takes a sociological shortcut. In her version, Cruz tells Kingsley simply that she finds him “charming.”
Soon enough they are in bed. The film’s study of the older man’s adoration at the temple of the young woman’s body starts off promisingly, but the director declines to venture beyond December’s drinking in the beauties of May. By contrast, the author examined a ravenousness that extended to Kepesh drinking Consuela’s menstrual blood. The novel portrays a complex, self-loathing character terrified by the fact of his decay. The movie gives us an aging Lothario whose dalliance is doomed by his fear of commitment. Why buy the rights to a Philip Roth novel if all you want to tell is the story of yet another relationship-phobe?
Elegy’s last act is a mournful smorgasbord of bathos in which both major and supporting characters drop like flies. The body count is practically Shakespearean. The same, regrettably, can’t be said for Coixet’s touch when it comes to tragedy. Where Roth penetrated deep into the psyche and forced us to confront our fear of death, the filmmaker appears compelled merely to make us cry.
Which is not to say that Kingsley isn’t in fine form — both artistically and physically. (Either Brad Pitt’s abs were digitally superimposed onto the actor, or he’s been doing some serious crunches.) Cruz delivers a moving performance, and Patricia Clarkson’s turn as a world-weary mistress provides a nuanced counterpart to Kepesh’s character that’s worth the price of admission. Despite all that, one can’t ignore that, in bringing the book to the screen, its producers haven’t just taken liberties. They’ve taken the heart and soul out of Roth’s creation.