ELEGY — *** — Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper; rated R (sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity, slurs)

There are few, more-frustrating actors than Ben Kingsley. Since he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of "Gandhi" in 1983, he's given a series of performances that can charitably be described as phoning-it-in or workman-like.

And yet every once in a while he'll give the type of performance, like his superb lead turn in the drama "Elegy," that reminds you of just how great he can be when he's properly motivated.

Kingsley is also part of a rock-solid acting ensemble that makes this faulty adaptation of Philip Roth's novel "The Dying Animal" better than it should be.

He stars as David Kepesh, a cultural critic and college professor who's been going from one fling to another ever since he left his marriage years ago.

Recently, Kepesh has become attracted to Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), an alluring student. But he waits to make his move until she finishes her work in his class.

The two start dating, and he begins acting like a jealous, possessive school boy. Even Kepesh's womanizing poet pal, George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper), is astonished by the change in his friend's demeanor and behavior.

Director Isabel Coixet ("My Life Without Me") and veteran screenwriter Nicholas Meyer struggle to get a grasp on the material. They've had to compress and combine certain elements (there's only so much time in a film to deal with things like male-female relationships, as well as maturity and immaturity).

Also, it's a little episodic, and the ending is too rushed. A subplot dealing with Kepesh's adult son, played by Peter Sarsgard, feels very half-hearted as well.

It is still a decent vehicle for Kingsley, though. The crafty actor makes the relationship between Kepesh and Castillo achingly real. Cruz is quite good as his much-younger lover. She almost deserves her own movie.

And so does the "sex buddy" character that's played by Patricia Clarkson. She and a surprisingly restrained, subtle Hopper are both terrific, in limited screen time.

"Elegy" is rated R for scenes of simulated sex and other sexual contact, female nudity, some strong sexual language (profanity and other suggestive talk), and slurs and other derogatory language. Running time: 108 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com