Friday, January 11, 2008

Lightning strikes, but there's little electricity

Writing about Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth'' -- the director's first movie in 10 years -- I'm tempted to follow the grandmotherly advice that tells us that it's best to say nothing if one can't say anything nice. As one of Coppola's long-time admirers, I find it depressing to say that the director's romanticism and grandiosity have been squeezed into a failed and cryptic little movie that derives from an unlikely source, a novella by Romanian philosopher/writer Mircea Eliade.

I haven't seen the trailer for "Youth Without Youth," but it's probably stunning. Working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., Coppola provides a feast for the eyes. Too bad his long-awaited movie winds up playing like a parody of a zillion arty foreign films as it grapples with a variety of heavy themes: from the origin of consciousness to the possibility of reincarnation.

The movie is built around a gimmicky central conceit. Tim Roth plays Dominic Matei, an academic who reverts to his youth when he's struck by lightning. The 70-year-old Dominic then wakes up to discover that he's reverted to the age of 40. A kindly doctor (Bruno Ganz) tries to protect Dominic from the Nazis, who are eager to discover the secret of his newly acquired youth. A fantasy in a minor key, "Youth Without You" proceeds to indulge in lots of muzzy philosophical discourse.

Sorely lacking in narrative drive, the movie turns to romance when Matei meets Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara). Time again for another plot-driving gimmick, the same one used in the movie's first half. Veronica’s also struck by a lightning, but -- unlike Matei -- she begins to age rapidly. She also starts speaking an ancient language and seems to hold the key to cosmic secrets.

None of this makes a great deal of sense, and I found myself watching the succession of carefully composed images with more sadness than confusion, mostly because I'm among those who root for Coppola to return to the form that made him such an important part of our youths.

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