'The Great Beauty' has style, but doesn't live up to the hype
As if to externalize the emptiness he feels, Beauty's Rome is all exquisitely framed but (aside from several lavish-party set pieces) underpopulated elegant rooms and grand exteriors. Has he simply forgotten the city's teeming everyday life, or has Sorrentino? The supporting cast of available (albeit troubled) women, backbiting colleagues, and miscellaneous grotesques are right out of the Fellini handbook of "fabulous" faces. Yet when Jep (let alone the director) was coming of age, the "dolce vita" had already ended, degenerating into the political chaos of the 1970s, the tacky coke binges of the '80s, then the crass, tawdry conspicuous consumption of Berlusconi and company — a decadence no longer divine but merely depressing. So why does this hangdog-faced protagonist's world seem so little changed from the ones Mastroianni inhabited half a century ago?
Even the "shocking" novelties Jep is unimpressed by feel old-hat: a child artist whose violent tantrums create Pollock-like action paintings; a Marina Abramovic-type performance artist who solemnly bangs her head against a pillar for suitably worshipful patrons. We grok his superiority to such nonsense, but just what does he have to offer that's any better? In a notably cruel sequence, Jep demolishes the pride of a prolific, idealistic female writer, calling her a fraud in both private life (she's married to a closeted homosexual) and artistic endeavors (she's acclaimed only by fellow Communist Party sympathizers). His smug satisfaction in doing so seems to be shared by the film itself. Yet when the film finally gets around to offering up what Jep can grasp as a core redemptive truth, it's ye olden mother/whore equation: a sequence cutting between a 104-year-old Mother Teresa-like "modern saint" crawling up a staircase to a Madonna painting, and a flashback to the moment when his first love exposed her boobs to Young Jep. Seriously, 142 minutes of pretentious bravado leads to that?
Servillo is a chameleon, far more than Mastroianni was, but the latter had a soulfulness both contemporary actor and film sorely lack. (Admittedly, some of the latter's layers may be inaccessible for foreign viewers, just as the equally over-amped but more focused Il Divo required familiarity with the never-ending scandalousness of Italy's political circus to be fully grasped.) As for Sorrentino, he's such a natural filmmaker on the surface that at times even the most skeptical will be seduced into The Great Beauty's sweeping gestures. But for all their panache, it's reasonable to worry the movie's "statement" may be no more than (to quote Jep's favorite all-purpose dismissal) "Blah, blah, blah." *
THE GREAT BEAUTY opens Fri/29 in Bay Area theaters.