There've only been a couple attempts to adapt Philip Roth to the screen, but those attempts all share one characteristic: they don't result in very good movies. I'm not sure there's just one reason for that - I haven't read very much Roth, but what I'm familiar with doesn't seem inherently anti-cinematic - but there you go, things are as they shall be. It's nice to think that eventually this lesson will be learned and we'll never again be subjected to these dour works of leaden intellectualism.

Until that day comes, we'll still get things like Elegy every few years, a singularly austere version of Roth's novella A Dying Animal. It doesn't seem like there's any reason for it to be as stubbornly airless as is the case; two very good actors give very good performances, for a start. In the end, that proves to be far from sufficient to breathe life into this tale of an aging scholar whose carefully-arranged misanthropy is thrown into question by the appearance of a beautiful young woman who can't get enough of his body. That's becoming an awfully familiar story nowadays, but rarely expressed with such overwhelming dolor.

Sir Ben "Rottweiler" Kingsley plays David Kepesh, a British-born New York literature/culture professor who publishes books about topics like the buried history of hedonism in Puritanical America, spends time avoiding his bitter adult son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), has a once-a-month fuckbuddy relationship with the emotionally distant Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), and confesses all his sins and worries to his only friend in the whole world, George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper). It so happens that one year, an extraordinarily beautiful woman in her mid-twenties takes his class: the Cuban-born Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz), and one night at his traditionally end-of-term cocktail party, Kepesh sets events in motion to seduce that beautiful young woman. Events that pay unexpected dividends when he goes and falls in love, and learns to his utter surprise that Consuela more than reciprocates, making for the first time the old man has felt love in years, perhaps for his entire life.

There's nothing about that which couldn't turn into a good enough motion picture, but in Elegy, it's all turned into Extremely Thoughtful ponderous fluff, sort of like a joke-free parody of the more serious Woody Allen films. Kepesh is a boundlessly mordant fellow who keeps explaining everything that he's feeling in the minutest detail, thanks to a maddeningly omnipresent voiceover, and he's so goddamnably intellectual about every last little thing, and the result is very much that we're talked at for almost two hours about a post-midlife crisis in the most arch language one can imagine. On begins to suffocate on the wordiness of it all - this could surely work in a novel, and I have no doubt at all that The Dying Animal is an insightful and significant look into the depressions of oncoming old age, but film is visual; film requires that we be shown, not told; and while Elegy shows a bit, it tells a whole lot more.

Oh, Nicholas Meyer. The novelist and screenwriter of the last Roth adaptation, The Human Stain, who will forever be to me the director/co-writer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (still the best Star Trek picture), has given us one of the most discursive screenplays of the year, less full of dialogue than of proclamations. I suppose this is what it's going to look like when a man in his 60s writes a story about the tribulations of a man in his 60s: no room for subtlety, we have to make sure that everybody understands how men in their 60s can suffer as mightily as any other man trapped in a film where having a penis, at any age, means that you will never stop thinking about sex (in this, Elegy is not unlike a 40-years-older riff on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with more furrowed brows).

And the director, Isabel Coixet - I haven't seen any of her previous work, other than one of my favorite segments from Paris, je t'aime (at the time, I think I even said how much I was looking forward to her next project. Oops), so I don't know if this is her normal style, or if the petrifying notion of adapting Roth scared her into a bad case of Prestige Picture the same way it seems to have done with Meyer, but she's made sure that Elegy is as static and devoid of emotion as the protagonist. Herein is the least-erotic shot of Cruz's naked abdomen that has ever been or will ever be committed to celluloid. Of course one cannot expect prurience from every old art film, but this is a good example of the way that the film treats every sexy moment: sex is not to be enjoyed but endured, so that we can get back to the greater thrill of talking about sex. Coixet's camera is tremendously dispassionate in all cases, full of careful compostions lit with precise gloomy intensity; the last movie I saw with such whole-hearted devotion to elegant stagnation, it was Vadim Perelman's dreary The Life Before Her Eyes.

Bringing some minute spark to the film, enough to make it simply mediocre and not absolutely wretched, Kingsley and Cruz both give performances that rank among the best of their recent careers - Cruz indeed gives the best performance she ever has in English (with her second-best English performance, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, still open for ready comparison). In both cases, they're working at cross-purposes to a screenplay that makes all of the subtle layers of their characters entirely explicit, but they both play the subtleties anyway, and paradoxically, almost save the script in doing so. Even though Kepesh tells us all about his fears and emotional chilliness, Kingsley still makes us discover those things through a slight tremble in his voice here, a worried crease of his forehead there. Cruz gets a much shallower Fantasy Woman role, but she at least manages to sell the single biggest belief-suspending element of the whole story, that Consuela would ever actually want to have sex with her professor, and when at long last the sucker-punch ending gives her something big to work with, she keeps it small and makes a giant pile of melodrama seem real and interesting.

Other than those two, Elegy is nothing but a faux-profound mess of big words, gloomy sets and typicaly male fulfillment fantasies made classy through tony New Yorkerist trappings. I don't know if this is meant to be an opening shot in the 2008 Oscarbait Season or just a last gasp of "we dumped this in August because there was nowhere better to let it die", but either way it's hard to appreciate as anything other than two actors giving far, far too much, and all by themselves making a terrifically flat movie seem marginally human.