David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is a British academic who lives and works in America as a university lecturer and as a broadcaster. He believes strongly in the benefits of masculine independence, and as a result has never wanted to be tied down to one woman, having survived a disastrous marriage in the nineteen-sixties that gave him a son, Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard), who took his wife's side in the subsequent divorce and therefore isn't too keen on his father. Kenny will call him up, but knowing how their conversations end David chooses to have as little contact as possible with him. And then one day a woman enters his life who changes his perspective on letting others in...
Elegy, as the name suggests, was a mournful adaptation of a Philip Roth novella that took as its subject the potency of older men and under the guidance of director Isabel Coixet turned it into a meditation on how even letting love into your life at a late stage can be improving, no matter how tragically it may have become as after all, the older you get the more death you have to face in your life. You could be forgiven for seeing death here as the ultimate party pooper, barging into David's way to upset his fun and taking out those he has grown close to just to make him realise what he's missing when they've gone, but with this lead character, everything is all about him until he comes to an alternative conclusion for the muted finale.
In his capacity as a lecturer, David likes to bed his more attractive female students, though is well aware that there is a sexual harrassment warning pinned to the noticeboards so to fend off any accusations, he ensures he seduces those students after their grades have been given out. Staying true to his theories of independence, he has formed a kind of club with his best friend George (Dennis Hopper), a couple of disreputable old womanisers, and though George is married already and David has his own casual girlfriend in businesswoman Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) they still like to gather as many notches on their increasingly creaky bedposts as they possibly can. What can put a stop to this behaviour?
Well, George finds something very final halting him in his steps, and Hopper took the chance to put in one last fine performance as the ageing, philosophising rake, so much so that he might have been a more fruiitful subject for the story than Kingsley's character. But it's Sir Ben we're concentrating on, and his May to December affair with student Consuela (Penélope Cruz, her accent explained as being Cuban) which he treats as another fling before his rhapsodising over her beautiful body begins to stir something more than lust in him: genuine affection. Before long he is jealously guarding her from other men, and a possessiveness takes over, but like too much in this, not enough to elicit convincing passion in the souls of the characters.
It's as if they're all doing their thing in separate films, passing each other by but not really connecting, not really knowing each other. Part of this is intentional, as George tells David that he can never actually get beneath the surface of a lovely lady to understand her personailty, because that beauty will always get in the way. However, the manner this is resolved in, by having Consuela undergo suffering that effectively removes that barrier, is far more unpleasant on the storytellers' part than simply allowing David to come to terms with his feelings like the grown-up he always assumed he was but might not have been and reaching some kind of contentment that way. It's true that there are those who cannot express, do not realise, how they feel about someone until something major occurs to them, and not necessarily in a good way, but the denouement to Elegy looks too much like moralistic punishment instead of two lovers making peace with their emotions beneficially.