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Campus Sexpot:
A Memoir
by David Carkeet
(In Paperback from Amazon)
. "Elegy"

As the first act in this adaptation of Philip Roth's novella, "The Dying Animal," unspooled on, I began to wriggle in my seat with an uneasy feeling of voyeurism. I wasn't sure I was comfortable watching two fine actors detail the older-man professor scoring with a beautiful, much younger student cliche'. Not that old studs seducing girls give me the willies but, as directed by Isabel Coixet ("The Secret Life of Words"), there was so much time spent in someone else's bedroom.

I was also wondering if I was accepting the premise of the situation because of Ben Kingsley's smooth line, credible facade of modesty and/or skill of acting. Or, was it the draw of intellectual depth that we know appeals to some young women? Or, finally, was it that Philip Roth knows how to write character and situation so well and that screenwriter Nicholas Meyers' adaptation was transferred from the original well? Or, all of the above?

Well, actually, it's probably none of it because student Consuela Castillo (Cruz) seems hard-enough-to-get to suggest she'd see right through the guy's attentions and transparent intentions. But acceptance of this particular relationship (so much easier to work with in a novel because you provide imagery in your own own mind's eye) becomes moot as the story progresses beyond the first phase of the relationship which, almost always, consists of non-stop physical consummation.

Before we put too much of a fine edge on Professor David Kepesh's (Kinglsey) stirling character, however, we learn soon enough that conquest is an ongoing preoccupation in a Kepesh classroom and life. Consuela is only the latest in what we can consider a long line of vulnerable sweeties. The difference here is that it gets more serious than usual. It gets into downright mutually heartfelt territory, in fact. And, it's way too bad that he has a long-time lover in hot businesswoman Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) who breezes into his apartment whenever she can break loose from her business demands.

Things go through a jealousy phase, if you can imagine the prof feeling so insecure with the girl that he spies on her. Then, there's the always-a-boy cameraderie Kepesh enjoys with fellow stud and professor George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper) whose role is a story funtion to expose Kepesh's state of mind and weighty renewal in a relationship that doesn't fit the comfortable pattern.

There's nothing like a pal to help a dude deal with a dilemma of choice between an old, solidly reliable relationship and the doubts over a new one. When the philosophical platitudes generated by that alliance seem exhausted, we get Kepesh's doctor son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard, "Rendition") on the scene to challenge David over his failures as a father. In the end, it will be Consuela, who has left him, who helps him over the barriers. The title refers to that end.

The acting department is the justification for the film. Though Kingsley is a candidate for make-up burn these days, at least he's not another weirdo psychologist ("The Wackness"), weirdo gang hitman ("You Kill Me"), or extreme weirdo government assassin ("War, Inc"). But then, what can a great character actor with a gift for quirkiness be expected to do?

The anti-heroic central character, Kepesh, leadens all this down as it seems to lumber along with a mild level of interest. But the reward for hanging in is Cruz ("Volver," "Sahara," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), who achieves a new level of craftsmanship. Again, looking for reasons, it may have been what Croixet was able to draw from her, or simply Cruz' own development as an actor, but this Spanish beauty's emotional strength and expressiveness here is enough to eclipse her co-star and put her in the creative company of a Kidman and, possibly, a Watts. And, that, for me, is a mouthful.

All due respect, too, for Sarsgaard's good effort to add some tension to his supporting role in the proceedings.

Get it now!
The Blu-ray DVD
The Soundtrack

The truth is, Cruz is too old for the role, but the director's calculation that she'll get us past that difficulty is well enough realized. (And Rachael Taylor wasn't available. -- kidding!) As far as Cruz has come from her intro to American audiences in 2001 with, "Vanilla Sky," her advancement in performance here should (I emphasize should), come to the attention of the Academy come Oscar nomination time.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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