Celebrated New York author, media personality and college professor, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) becomes obsessed by Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), a beautiful Cuban student in his University class. They begin an affair, despite cynicism from David's best friend, acclaimed poet George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper), who ironically is often unfaithful to his own wife Amy (Deborah Harry). David's closest ally is Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a successful business woman with whom he has had a relationship for 2 years and who understands him far better than anyone, including his troubled son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard).
Review by Louise Keller:
Beauty, obsession and longing are the central themes of this hypnotic but ultimately flawed drama in which Ben Kingsley's ageing college professor falls in lust with Penelope Cruz' stunning and vulnerable student. 'You're a real work of art,' he tells his Lolita as he marvels at every perfect curve of her anatomy. He desires her, is obsessed by her, is jealous of anyone who has (or had) a relationship with her and cannot get enough of her. Like the relationship between a magnificent piece of art and the person who admires it, the issue of ownership between the two becomes questionable. Starting with its superb cast, there are many good things about this adaptation of Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal, yet the journey stumbles in the final chapter, when the mood changes from hopeless longing to hopelessness.
The film starts wonderfully and we, like Kingsley's David, are mesmerised by Cruz' stunning Consuela, whom he admires from afar in his University lectures. The distance between them disappears when lectures conclude and David begins an artistic courtship, sharing appreciation of artworks, books and theatre. He also becomes voyeuristic as he takes her photo - and deliberates over the prints as he develops them. When they make love for the first time, director Isabel Coixet depicts the event with all the beauty and wonder of ethereal art coming to life. All David wants to do is to bed her, yet he becomes gentle, tentative and almost shy, as they melt together as one. Kingsley is at his shining best, expressing every vulnerability, fear, inadequacy and loneliness as he stumbles badly through a relationship he is not equipped to handle. Cruz is totally credible as the gorgeous Consuela who we see in all her naked glory and who manages to impart such innocence, even when the camera hones in on her symbolically perfect breasts.
Nichola Meyer's screenplay nicely interweaves the other three key relationships. There's Patricia Clarkson's 'one in a million' Carolyn, with whom David has been having an affair for the past 20 years and who understands him better than anyone. Their scenes together feel so comfortable and contain an unspoken truth that binds them unequivocally. With his best mate, Pulitzer Prize winning poet George (Dennis Hopper), David can share his fears and hear sharp truths (over coffee, playing squash, in the sauna) and Hopper excels as the cynical womaniser who tells it how it is (Deborah Harry plays his long-suffering wife Amy). Peter Sarsgaard is a welcome contradiction as the bitter son with his own relationship problems, who continues to harbour resentment of the father who deserted him.
As the story unfolds, Coixet loses her grip on the film's direction and events that may work effectively on the written page become whitewashed on celluloid. Perhaps the jump in time alienates us from the characters and the final 20 minutes drag. Even this exceptional cast cannot overcome the film's final analysis. We feel as solitary and useless as the small black ball in the squash court that is discarded in despair and comes to an inevitable halt by the wall.
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CAST: Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry
PRODUCER: Andre Lamal, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg
DIRECTOR: Isabel Coixet
SCRIPT: Nichola Meyer (novella The Dying Animal by Philip Roth)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jean-Claude Larrieu
EDITOR: Amy E. Duddleston
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Claude Pare
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 9, 2009