For about 3/4 of its length, “Elegy” is a pretty good Aging Bachelor flick. Ben Kingsley is the consummate bachelor, having left his wife years ago in exchange for hedonism and a 20 year no-strings-attached relationship with Patricia Clarkson. He’s a college professor; he can sleep with as many students as want him, then lecture on the virtues of promiscuity the next morning in class. And feel good about himself.
Then he meets Penelope Cruz, and loses all his confidence. He actually feels something for this skirt — primarily, the crushing insecurity I suspect just about any man would feel if they found themselves suddenly sharing a bed with Cruz. He discovers that he can’t live without her, and then discovers that he can’t bring himself to meet her parents, either. So she leaves him. As she should. And then his best friend dies.
As I said, for 3/4 of the way through, it’s a lyrical, gentle look at love, aging, loneliness and compromise. “Elegy” relies to heavily on voiceover, but the voiceover script sounds like it comes straight out of the Philip Roth novel this movie is based on. I guess if you’re going to have a voiceover, it can’t hurt to have Roth write it.
But then something odd happens near the end, and suddenly “Elegy” becomes a sort of commentary on the career and prospects of Ms. Cruz. She comes back to him, confesses that she has breast cancer, and asks him to take topless pictures of her so that she can remember what she looked like way back when. “Will you still love me when I’m not beautiful anymore?” she asks him, all doe-eyed.
Excuse my vulgarity, but at that point I found myself trying to remember if I’ve ever seen Penelope Cruz in a movie without also seeing Penelope Cruz’s breasts in said movie. I came up blank. Kingsley affirms, of course, that yes, he would still love her with scars instead of breasts. I’m not sure Hollywood would be so accepting. Truly, for this actress, a mastectomy would be a career-ending surgery.