It’s been quite a year for middle-aged professors in identity crises. We’ve seen the Slacker Professor (Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages), the Grumpy Widowed Professor (Dennis Quaid in Smart People), the Inner He-Man Tom-Tom Professor (The Visitors‘ Richard Jenkins), and now for the grand finale, a proven favorite, the Horny Old Devil Professor — Ben Kingsley in Isabel Coixet’s intelligent but weepy drama Elegy.
Busy Sir Ben, also currently on local screens in the thriller Transsiberian, turns in a meticulous performance as David Kepesh, a highly regarded and resolutely selfish author and professor of English lit whose main hobby, aside from holding court in an imaginary Manhattan (it was filmed in Vancouver), is harvesting his choice of the coeds in his university class. As dreamed up by novelist Philip Roth for his novella The Dying Animal and adapted for the screen by writer-filmmaker Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Time After Time, etc.), the promiscuous David is riding for a fall.
His comeuppance takes the form of Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), a shy but exquisite Cuban-American charmer thirty years his junior. The smitten David practically worships at the altar of her body, much to her bewilderment. Consuela’s beauty is enough to make him reexamine his aesthetic rationale for lust. She embodies his dread of old age as well as his restless search for the magic elixir of youth. Woody Allen, please copy. All the while, the Greek chorus at David’s side — old faithful bed-buddy Carolyn (wry Patricia Clarkson), poet and colleague George (a restrained and very effective Dennis Hopper), and David’s disapproving son, a doctor named Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard) — is whispering insistently to him. Something about pride, hubris, and fate.
If we were to say we preferred Cruz’ prim but sensual Consuela to her cartoonishly tempestuous painter Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it would be less because of the latter’s obvious stereotyping and more because Consuela’s vulnerability itself is a turn-on, for the audience as much as for the opportunistic David. Cruz is steadily putting to rest the notion that her English-language performances — or at least the roles offered to her — fail to measure up to her Spanish-language work in such films as Volver, Todo sobre mi madre, and Abre los ojos.
Coixet, the Spanish international director of My Life Without Me, The Secret Life of Words, and a vignette in Paris Je T’aime, frames this circuitous love affair a bit somberly, as if to warn us that David and Consuela cannot linger forever in the garden. As their fates unfold and the gloom settles down on the protagonists, Coixet resists the temptation to gloat. Frailty builds character, after all. Not for David the eternal randiness of the literary satyr. He’s too much of a liar to believe in salvation and too humanistic to embrace anything other than his selfhood. His delusions have the advantage of being his alone, and so they’re perfect. One of the prolific Kingsley’s best recent outings, David grazes freely on the duplicities of love while we observe and take note, free of indigestion.
Robert “Fish” Fishman (played by Rainn Wilson), likable-loser hero of the good naturedly lightweight comedy The Rocker, lets his middle-age craziness take him in a slightly different direction. Twenty years earlier in the mid-1980s, Fish was the drummer for the up-and-coming metal band Vesuvius, but he was fired backstage after a show, just as the band was making it big. That same night, his girlfriend dumped him and he was forced to move in with his sister and her family. Now, fortysomething Fish is working at a call center and living in the basement of a Chinese restaurant. Twenty years in Cleveland, what a sentence.
Suddenly, Fish catches a glimmer of hope. His pudgy nephew Matt (Josh Gad) and band mates Curtis (Teddy Geiger) and Amelia (Emma Stone) need a drummer to play a prom night gig at their high school, and they reluctantly give Uncle Fish a chance. Wilson, the befuddled everyman from The Office on TV and such films as Juno, Full Frontal, and My Super Ex-Girlfriend, nails the fatuous hard-rock drummer thing perfectly, in a flurry of grimaces and hot-dog mannerisms Tommy Lee would be proud of. Their new band, ADD, is a hit, they sign a recording deal with a slimy A&R man (Jason Sudeikis from Saturday Night Live), and hit the road on tour. What happens next isn’t so much a rerun of This Is Spinal Tap as a riff on the working-class fantasies of Detroit Rock City or The School of Rock, with more than a dab of Sacha Gervasi’s hilarious indie doc Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
Rampant underdog-ism comes naturally to director Peter Cattaneo, maker of The Full Monty. He and a trio of writers cram the unbelievable Fish story with happy details until it’s fit to bust: the Naked Drummer craze on YouTube and MySpace, Fish’s sweaty bear hugs, the “pocket full of puke” routine, yellow Hummer limos (“a school bus for assholes”), Paul the rent-a-faceman-drummer (“It’s like Abercrombie’s making people now”), Vesuvius’ fake English accents, etc. And he gets apt performances from Christina Applegate (as a mom! sob!), Jeff Garlin (as Fish’s closet-rocker bro-in-law), and old codger Howard Hesseman, seen here as the driver of the tour bus. More fun than a fifth of Rebel Yell and a bag of Quaaludes.
But enough horsing around. Documentarian Patrick Creadon (Wordplay) has some bad news for us. Americans have been having way too much fun and now it’s time to pay the tab. In his entertainingly alarming new doc I.O.U.S.A., Creadon enlists the likes of former US Comptroller General David Walker, former Secretaries of the Treasury Robert Rubin and Paul O’Neill, and Bob Bixby, head of the fiscal responsibility org Concord Coalition, heavyweights all, to explain why having a $10 trillion national debt (the projected figure for January 2009) and a $53 trillion federal obligation (for things like Medicare and Social Security) is a bad thing.
We’ve been hearing warnings about this for years, but now, with the mortgage crisis and accompanying meltdown, people are actually beginning to listen. We can’t put it on our credit card anymore because there is no credit. Bottom line: The party’s over. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. America itself may be a bubble. O’Neill: “When you get to the point where you can’t service your debt, you’re finished.” The remedy: Go back to cash and spend only what you can afford. As former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan puts it: “Without savings, there is no future.” Gulp.