2008, Movie, R, 106 mins


Beautifully adapted from Philip Roth's 2001 novel The Dying Animal, this melancholy mediation on aging and desire hangs on an exquisite performance from Penelope Cruz as a young woman who becomes the love object of a man twice her age. It's easily her finest English-language performance to date.

Thanks to his regular appearances as the resident culture critic on Charlie Rose, English-born, Oxford-educated Columbia University professor David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) has become something of a New York City celebrity. David's latest book chronicles the rise and fall of Merrymount, the early Massachusetts settlement that became infamous for pagan maypole revelry and unbridled sexual freedom. For David, the eventual suppression of Merrymount by the Puritans of Plymouth represents the triumph of priggish repression over healthy sexual desire, and in the 1960s, David celebrated America's brief return to the bacchanalian spirit by leaving his wife and young son for the commitment-free life of a sexual libertine. Now well into his 60s, David Kepesh hasn't really changed: The closest he's gotten to a relationship is a long-distance affair with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a former student who is now a twice-divorced, middle-aged businesswoman. And despite David's aging body and his awareness of its limited appeal, he still manages to bed a few of the smitten young women who flock to his Cultural Theory seminar, but only after the class has ended. This year, David has had his eye on Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), the beautiful daughter of well-to-do Cuban exiles. Consuela is a little older than most of David's students -- though still a good 30-plus years younger than her professor -- and she proves no less susceptible to Satie, Goya and all the other weapons in David's arsenal of seduction. But unlike many of David's other conquests, Consuela comes back for more, and soon David is the smitten one. His old friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper), urges David to keep things strictly sexual, while warning him to beware of objectifying an attractive woman: It can often blind the lover to the real person underneath. David, however, can't help himself. Consuela's startling beauty -- David is particularly enamored of her breasts -- and his own insecurities about the considerable age difference has shaken his old swaggering self-confidence, and David's desire soon slips into an unhealthy jealousy. After struggling much of his life to remain free of emotional entanglements, David becomes a prisoner of his own obsession.

Roth's novel is the third in a trilogy that also includes the Kafka-esque fantasy The Breast and The Professor of Desire, both of which chronicle the life of the breast fetishist David Kepesh. Thanks to sensitive direction by Spanish director Isabel Coixet (MY LIFE WITHOUT ME, THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS) and Cruz's wonderful performance, the film manages to balance out Roth's strictly male point of view. And it's not all as serious as it sounds. Particularly amusing is the relationship between David now grown son, Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard). An oncologist who has never forgiven his father for leaving him and his mother, Kenny exists as a kind of cosmic retribution for the life his father has chosen: He's a recriminating, moralizing prig who never tires of condemning his father, even as his own marriage is threatened by infidelity. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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