Opulent Italian Oscar contender fizzles and flounders

Paolo Sorrentino’s 2011 film and English-language debut This Must Be the Place imagined Sean Penn as a mock-up Robert Smith navigating the life of an aging rock star as he begins to feel increasingly antiquated and alienated from the world around him. For his followup Sorrentino has returned home to his native Italy to Rome in another attempt to trace the existential crisis reaped on a lavish socialite by too many years spent living the high life.

The protagonist in The Great Beauty ( La Grande Bellazza ) is one Jep Gambardella a suave journalist and writer who has never been able or willing to publish a followup to his single acclaimed novel. Early in the film we’re privy to the rooftop celebration for his 65th birthday which sets off a sprawling and ambitious attempt to wax poetic on questions of life death and fulfilment.

Grand romantic and undeniably Italian the name most frequently evoked in discussions of the film — nominee for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards — is the modernist master Federico Fellini. Indeed certain similarities are clear and surely intentional: the aging writer of the film hinting at 8 ½ ’s creatively stunted director while dreamy images of late nights turning to dawn on the streets of Rome recall La Dolce Vita . Virtuoso is definitely the word of the day and Sorrentino appears to be trying desperately to stake his claim as a great cineaste on the level of Fellini or Luchino Visconti. The result unfortunately is almost two and a half hours of overwrought indulgent and meaningless dribble. Unsure whether to aim for a ribald satire sentimental humanism comedy or tragedy The Grand Beauty ultimately emerges as little more than a pretentious and tedious mess.

For its sheer maximalism alone the kindred spirit of the film might be more accurately located in The Wolf of Wall Street Martin Scorsese’s recent parable on excess than in La Dolce Vita . Whereas Scorsese took the hedonistic and selfish excess of New York’s financial world as its source material heightening the rampage in an effort to craft a truly ruthless and wicked satire The Great Beauty seems at times to riff on the decadence of Berlosconi-era Italy while ultimately falling short of Scorsese’s vitality. Too willing to drop into flights of fancy and forced sentimentalism than to let its debauchery run wild the film feels slight and unsatisfying. As we leap from narrative threads concerning memories of a deceased former lover the unhinged son of a friend a new lover a playwright friend and a Mother Teresa-type saint Sorrentino seems unable to coalesce the film’s different plots and registers into something richer or to even let them play off each other in any interesting way.

The centrepieces of the film are clearly intended to be opulent party scenes. Heralded each time by a dreadful strain of bland European house music we watch as the drinks flow the camera soars (even upside down!) beautiful women dance and the action dwindles to a languid slow-motion. Not wild enough to function as satire (where are the bunga-bunga parties?) nor compelling enough to ever feel truly sincerely exciting the sequences come off like an exceptionally high-budget Smirnoff Ice commercial. Sorrentino in his attempts at grandiosity seems to believe that true vivacity and jubilance can be attained by little more than a soaring camera. Or on the flip side that sincerity and emotional heft can be doled out simply by repeatedly introducing a bloated aria refrain.

Now one might be tempted to give the The Great Beauty the benefit of the doubt — there is no way the film can slip in two references to Proust without any self-awareness of how poorly it’s cribbing that master of nostalgia right? An extended sequence of an actual train dance at a party has to be tongue in cheek?

Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The claim that the film itself is meant to be extravagant yet hollow as a mirror of its subject doesn’t ultimately hold water. Perhaps the greatest fault of the film the one that starkly sets it apart from The Wolf of Wall Street is that the clear lingering sympathy Sorrentino holds towards Gambardella prevents it having any teeth. Meanwhile its overdone stylistics stall any chance for sincere emotional or intellectual resonance. Sorrentino is too content to let the film revel in the pleasures of its own sumptuous beauty to achieve anything remotely interesting thought-provoking or satisfying. For a film that seems to do so much talking one can’t help but feel that below the surface Sorrentino has nothing to say.

THE GREAT BEAUTY directed by Paolo Sorrentino starring Toni Servillo Carlo Verdone and Sabrina Ferilli opens Friday February 28.