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Friday, Jan. 23, 2009
'Quantum of Solace'/'Elegy'
Acting, but not one's age
As a teen, I spent some time involved in youth theater, and auditions weren't always the most pleasant experience. I was a skinny youth, and one director — deciding to mess with me — requested that I act, in open audition, as if I were the strongest man in the world. I thought about that for a moment and realized the futility of puffing my chest up and posing, so I took a slow steady walk across the room, grabbed the director violently by the collar, and snarled into his face, "How's this?"
Needless to say, I didn't get the part. But I still think to this day I was on the mark. Real strength lies in confidence. I was reminded of this while watching Ben Kingsley in "Elegy"; his director, Isabel Coixet ("My Life Without Me," 2003), was the equivalent of my childhood head-messer, asking him — a 65-year-old man — to climb into bed, naked, with Penelope Cruz (!), and to forget all of an aging body's imperfections and embarrassments, and to act virile, assured and totally unselfconcious. Kingsley must be literally brimming with confidence because he pulls it off entirely.
"Elegy" is based on a novel by Philip Roth ("The Dying Animal"), a writer I stopped reading a while back because, as film critic Roger Ebert best put it, "(He) has just about exhausted my desire to read his stories about young babes falling for older, wiser intellectuals like, say, Philip Roth."
"Elegy" is of a piece with this vintage of Roth: Aging college professor David Kepesh (Kingsley) is a committed libertine, with a failed marriage safely in his past and an endless supply of impressionable young students to grace his bedroom. (After grades are given, thank you. No messy sexual harassment charges for Professor Kepesh.) He's happy with his freedom and lack of commitments, until he meets Consuela (Cruz), a Cuban-American student who catches his eye, a girl who, as Kepesh puts it, "knows she's beautiful, but doesn't know yet what to do with her beauty."
Kepesh manages to chat her up successfully, but is surprised when the one-night stand turns into something longer and deeper. Kepesh can't imagine a future with this whiplash-inducing beauty who's at least 30 years younger, but neither can he drop her. He expects her to dump him, but she doesn't, and then Kepesh finds himself losing his composure, needing her, feeling jealousy and insecurity, all the things he thought his rejection of serious relationships had put him above.
It's an astounding performance by Kingsley, displaying the male psyche, desiccated by age, but still riven by desire and by the same dreams. Kepesh is wise enough to ask himself, "Why can't an old man act his age?" but then answers his own question: "Because, in my head, nothing has changed." He moves from a supremely self-assured, even smug man, to one who becomes almost pathetic, spying on his lover like a jealous teenager. And of course, he has the bedroom scenes; getting the viewer to buy Penelope Cruz sleeping with a guy her grandpa's age was always gonna be a hard task. A moment's drop of the mask would ruin it all, but Kingsley never wavers in his confidence that he's the suavest guy this side of Phil Roth, and the viewer buys it too.
"Elegy" is full of the brutal, cut-to-the-core honesty in looking at male sexual psychology that marks Roth's work. Lines like "when you make love with a woman, you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life," have split the critics between those who find it honest, and those who find it sexist. Of course, it could be both. It's clear though that the sensibility of Coixet, and a wonderfully nuanced performance by Cruz, bring a much needed female counterbalance to Roth's exclusively male obsessing. (She also makes the proceedings somewhat less pornographic than the novel.)
The critics' responses to "Elegy" have been all over the map, and this porovocative film clearly serves as some kind of sexual Rorschach test for anyone who views it. Throw in some great supporting performances from a warm and roguish Dennis Hopper and a sultry Patricia Clarkson, and you'll find this ode to romantic folly irresistible, even when it's infuriating.
The older man/younger woman dynamic has been a staple of the 007 movies for decades now, and superspy James Bond is nothing if not a mythic caricature of male confidence, as indefatigable in bed as he is indestructible in battle. Yet the latest in the series, "Quantum of Solace," is an exception. In Daniel Craig's second outing as 007, he fashions a wounded, emotionally brittle Bond, internalizing his rage and driven a bit mad by the need for revenge. Bond, like Kepesh, is surprised to learn that he does have feelings, and that happiness may not be self-contained.
Picking up minutes after where "Casino Royale" left off, we see MI-5 agent Bond going rogue in order to pursue the men he believes are responsible for the death of his lover, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), in the last film. He hooks up with Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a similarly vengeance driven young woman, to infiltrate an evil organization, which, under the guise of environmental protection, plans to control Bolivia's water supply and mercilessly exploit its underclass. (This must be the first time the actions of a Bond supervillain have been inspired by an American multinational, Bechtel, which did monopolize Bolivia's water supply for a time.)
The film starts off shaky; this is director Marc Forster's very first action film and it looks it, with an opening car chase that is just an incomprehensible blur of shots. He gets better as he goes along though, and a set-piece where Bond and Camille free-fall from a crashing airplane is truly spectacular. (Though not entirely unique to the series . . . ) A muddled plot, the lack of a truly menacing villain, and the platonic nature of Bond and Camille's relationship all add up to make "Quantum" less of a blast than "Casino Royale," but the new grittier Bond is still welcome.