Rome's sights prove more scintillating than cocktails and naps.
If I lived in Jep Gambardella's apartment, I would never leave. Jep is at the center of the seriocomic Italian film The Great Beauty, and his flat has a close-up view of the Colosseum in Rome. It's a stunning vista, and it reminds me that by way of comparison, one of the most interesting views I ever had from a Madison apartment was of the old Kohl's supermarket on East Washington Avenue.
I love the film less than the apartment. The Great Beauty is nominated for this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it has a 92% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But as I sometimes say, I admire this film more than I like it. I admire the scope of its ambition and the large cast of kooks. I admire the beautiful design and the sumptuous playground that is the movie's Rome. All these elements combine to explain why the film is being called Felliniesque. (In the production notes, director and co-writer Paolo Sorrentino coyly says Fellini films like La Dolce Vita "may have" influenced him.)
But I don't admire Jep (Toni Servillo, who also starred in Sorrentino's Il Divo), and I think I am supposed to. He is a journalist who, when he was much younger, wrote his only novel. Everyone loved it. Now he is bored -- with high society, with sex, with journalism. He throws and attends many lavish parties. After the parties, at dawn, he wanders around the city looking at stuff. He dresses immaculately and smokes picturesquely and engages in sparkling chitchat. He is snarky to a writer who commits the unpardonable sin of working in television. These qualities could be maddeningly attractive in a much younger man. Jep is 65, though, and for the most part I find him only maddening.
The film is loosely plotted. It's more of a character sketch, in fact, and at two hours and 20 minutes, that's a lot of sketching. Between the party scenes -- which look like a lot of fun -- there are numerous stagy set pieces, several of which have to do with determined artists and their works. One of these sequences seems intended mainly to poke fun at performance artists, which was funny when the comic strip Doonesbury did it back in the 1980s. At this point, the joke doesn't seem very fresh.
In general I'm not a fan of this film's brand of quirky, deadpan comedy, with gags that seem meant to confuse rather than amuse. (In the U.S., most comedies in this vein seem to star Paul Dano.) Meanwhile, the comic component doesn't mesh well with the film's somber musings on grand topics like mortality and religion. It's an unwieldy mix.