Produced by Lakeshore Entertainment
Directed by Isabel Coixet
Screenplay by Nicholas Meyer from a novel by Philip Roth
Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films
Burn After Reading
Produced by Relativity Media and Studio Canal
Directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen
Distributed by Focus Features
Elegy, Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal (2001), includes a scene in which 65-year-old Ben Kingsley runs his finger down 34-year-old Penélope Cruz’s breastbone as he admires her fully exposed charms on either side. “I worship them,” he murmurs reverentially. It would be ungentlemanly to question whether or not Miss Cruz sports worshipful breasts, but I found it a little ridiculous to watch codger Kingsley adore them so solemnly, especially with Miss Cruz gazing down on his bald pate as if she were Aphrodite accepting her divine due from yet another besotted earthling.
Elegy fails because Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer lack any sense of irony. They have taken Roth’s sulfuric novella of sexual delusion and turned it into a ludicrous May-December romance minus the laughs. This is a three-hanky woman’s movie with more nudity than customarily allowed.
The narrative concerns the love affair between Consuela, a Cuban graduate student in her mid-20’s, and her professor, David Kepesh, who is 62 when the relationship begins. After a year and a half of weekly lovemaking, Consuela invites Kepesh to her graduation party to meet her parents. He fears looking foolish in front of her family, so he cancels at the last moment with a transparently phony excuse. His cowardly self-regard effectively ends their relationship. Years later—eight in the novel, something less in the film—Consuela calls, asking him to help her face an ordeal, and the narrative concludes with his response.
The film is an exercise in high-toned sentimentality that leaves in its torpid wake a flotsam of inconvenient questions. For instance, after so long an absence, would Consuela turn to the now 70-year-old Kepesh for help? Her explanation is feeble. She admits there have been other men in her life, but none of them, she assures him, “loved my body as much as you.” What? With those adorable breasts? And what about that matter of age? At 20, a woman might delude herself into believing adoration of her body is the same thing as love, but not after 30. To be fair, Roth’s plot includes the same improbability, which, on the page, seems transparently motivated by an aging novelist’s vanity. Kepesh is a recurring character in Roth’s work. Most notably, he was the man who morphed à la Kafka into a six-foot mammary in The Breast (1972). Furthermore, his career parallels that of Roth, who has been a professor at various universities and a culturally and politically engaged essayist. Perhaps Roth was sneakily affirming his own continuing vitality by having Consuela come back to his fictional self-projection.
This is not to deny the novella’s power. It is a tonic emetic of all that crap about the Sexual Revolution that even now lingers in America’s cultural bowels. As the benighted first-person narrator, Kepesh indicts himself unawares as a loathsome sexual predator licensed by the 60’s. Once he realized there had been a subversion of America’s sexual mores, he dumped his wife and eight-year-old son and went to town preying on his female students. By way of justification, he claims he afforded these girls the benefit of an interlude with a seasoned, aesthetically cultivated man. Then, after three decades of unfettered hedonism, he makes the mistake of falling for Consuela, a woman whose character has been formed by her Hispanic Catholic culture. She may be foolish enough to allow Kepesh to seduce her, but she is not an American-bred sexual toy. When the time comes to dispose of her, he finds he cannot. In her absence, he feels “deformed” by jealousy, haunted by the prospect of her with a younger man.
Kepesh is a cold-hearted bastard whose whining tale of comeuppance serves as a kamikaze assault on America’s headlong hedonism. The usually libertine Roth seems self-disgusted here. He has arranged matters so that his double must confront mortality in a particularly ugly turn of events.
Coixet’s film might have been better had she listened to Roth. He had made two requests: Kingsley should wear a wig, and the film should include the scene in which Kepesh licks Consuela’s menstrual blood from her legs. Coixet complied with neither. Kingsley didn’t want a wig, and, for obvious reasons, Coixet wasn’t delighted by the prospect of showing Kepesh pay Consuela such unwholesome attention. She was wrong on both counts.
The novel makes strategic use of Kepesh’s coiffure. In a fit of anger, his alienated son derides him as an “old fool” for wearing a “long white pageboy of important hair,” comparing him to the aging Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, who futilely rouges his cheeks to look young and attractive. As for the menstrual blood, it comes about because Consuela tells Kepesh of an episode when she was 16. Her cousin insisted on seeing the results of her period. Kepesh makes the same demand, and when Consuela complies, he attempts to outdo his retroactive competitor by consuming some of her blood. This particularly outré fetish seems meant to depict Kepesh as a pathetic vampire trying to sustain his waning vitality with the blood of young women. That the learned Kepesh gives no hint that he recognizes the implications of what he is doing makes him all the more contemptible. More than vampiric, the act celebrates sterility by its attention to another ovum’s unfertilized passing. This is Kepesh all over. His life has been one long death wish. He has divorced sex from procreation so completely that his son’s progeny disgust him. Abortion is his first and only counsel to those foolish enough to start pregnancies.
So this is what the 60’s have begotten. No wonder the novel ends with Kepesh cornered, unable to take another step for fear that he will be “finished.” Of course, he is finished already; he is just too self-obsessed to heed the counsel of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” from which Roth took his title. There we learn that an aging heart, “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal . . . knows not what it is,” unless it allows itself to be gathered into “the artifice of eternity.” The ghoulish Kepesh prefers to remain in a sensual realm “that is no country for old men.”
Last year Joel and Ethan Coen adapted Cormac McCarthy’s Yeats-inspired No Country for Old Men. The resulting film seemed a departure from the brothers’ usual fare. Now comes Burn After Reading to suggest otherwise. This wildly funny film echoes their earlier work, but thematically it is on the same page as the somber, gnomic No Country. Both films focus on dim, deluded people who believe unreasonably in their own importance until fate abruptly disillusions them. In No Country the mysterious Chigurh stalks fools to deliver the message that their little lives are at the mercy of chance. In Burn, the CIA and private investigators specializing in divorce cases labor to prove the same thing.
Near the film’s end, an ex-CIA officer, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), corners an intruder in his basement. “You’re a member of the league of morons,” he screams, pointing a gun at this hapless fellow with one hand while holding a drink in the other. This showdown ushers in the film’s uproarious climax. The narrative’s two forces set in motion by Osborne and, improbably enough, a gym manager named Linda Litsky (Frances McDormand) finally collide. Both Osborne and Linda are paragons of America’s obsession with positive thinking and self-invention and, as such, perfectly incarnate self-importance. They have been trying mightily to transform their identities—Osborne, by literally rewriting his life’s narrative; Linda, by means of extensive cosmetic surgery.
The intruder is indeed a moron, but compared with Osborne and Litsky, he’s a rank amateur. And, you’ll be glad to learn, each of the rest of the cast of characters is a certifiable dunce. For my money, there are few pleasures more satisfying than spending 97 minutes watching this league of morons run their silly paces.
As suits its theme, this coolly misanthropic movie begins with a God’s-eye view of earth. Then the camera descends in one continuous zoom toward greater Washington, D.C., and its puny inhabitants, a single building in its target finder. The words “Langley, VA” print across the bottom of the screen, and a moment later we are inside the offices of the CIA watching Osborne being demoted. “This is a crucifixion,” he bellows, immediately plotting revenge. He will write a tell-all memoir about his CIA service. “There’s a higher sort of patriotism,” he declares. He is undoubtedly correct, but he didn’t count on “that Jew woman” Linda who has decided that she has gone “as far as [she] can with [her] body.” She is determined to alter her arms, belly, buttocks, and, of course, the “window of the soul” that is her face. Since her HMO refuses to pick up the tab, she must find an alternate source of funding. When, by happenstance, she finds a computer disk containing Osborne’s memoir, she has her source. With the help of her gum-chewing colleague Chad (Brad Pitt), she plots blackmail.
Once its motor starts, this film never lets up. It zips through a twisty course filled with devilish switchbacks that threaten to confuse the viewer but never really do, thanks to some supremely attentive writing and superbly engineered editing.
It would be unforgivable to say anything more. The film’s joys should be savored, undiluted by critical comment. The performances are uniformly perfect. With her round, blue eyes and unrelenting smile, McDormand makes Linda more maniacally hopeful than Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad. Malkovich exhibits titanic amour propre, as his character would put it. George Clooney plays a womanizing treasury agent never without the service revolver he’s not “discharged in twenty years of duty.” Tilda Swinton does her über-bitch to a fare-thee-well. Richard Jenkins, so good in The Visitor, again proves himself with his understated portrait of a caring, lovelorn loser. And Brad Pitt renders the quintessence of moronhood, a dyed-blond streak in his swept-back hair and an iPod plugged constantly in his ears.
Just one caveat: Don’t see this movie if you possess a heart low on the granitic index.