A film review by Craig J. Koban


2007, R, 125 mins.

Dominic: Tim Roth / Veronica/Laura:  Alexandra Maria Lara / Stanciulescu: Bruno Ganz
Dr. Rudolf: Andre Hennicke / Tucci: Marcel Iures

Written, directed and produced Francis Ford Coppola / Based on the novella by Mircea Eliade.

Francis Ford Coppola has very little to prove.  If anything, he can easily be regarded as one of the elite filmmakers of his generation, and his resume contains such landmark and bold achievements  that any filmmaker would aspire to attain.  Considering works like the first GODFATHER, THE CONVERSATION, and APOCALYPSE NOW, it’s easy to see this filmmaker’s genius.  This is a director of passion and vision who has exceedingly contributed to the landscape of the medium.  As a result, it is with the highest anticipation that I awaited YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, his first film in over a decade.  

Suffice to say, this film in no way hints at or reflects the past greatness of one of the cinema’s most auspicious artists. 

Coppola's last ten years have been dodgy and inconsistent, to say the least.  His last two films alternated between bad and good, the first being the unanimously awful JACK and the last being his adaptation of John Grisham’s THE RAINMAKER, very decent and still one of the finest adaptations of the author’s work.  After this remake he fell off of the directorial map and opted to fill in his shoes  producing a wide body of work ranging from SLEEPY HOLLOW, KINSEY, THE GOOD SHEPHERD (one of my Ten Best Films of 2006) along with producing most of his daughter's films, like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and LOST IN TRANSLATION.  

Now comes his long awaited return, but YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is an unattainable letdown.  Financed primarily via the director’s own successful vineyard in California and made for peanuts, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, to be fair, is one of the most sumptuous and gracefully shot films of 2007.  It is clear that Coppola’s command of and mastery of film aesthetics has not left him, as YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is handsomely mounted with gorgeous, eye-popping cinematography that fosters such an ethereal and unforgettable splendor to the proceedings.  This is as polished as any of his masterful films from his peak period in the 1970’s. 

The film’s lush and luminous visual palette notwithstanding, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a categorical failure on a story, character, and emotional level.  The story, based on the Romanian novella of the same name by Mircea Eliade (one of Coppola’s self-professed favorite literary works), is awash in wave pompous, artistic conceitedness that straddles between being completely nonsensical and dramatically impenetrable.  The basic premise of the film is intriguing, and Coppola is a craftsman that is more than capable of making a compelling looking film out of it, but he seems so unalterable rapped up and carried away with the minutiae of all of the dull, intellectual pontificating that exists in the story.  The film flounders and meanders around in a pool of its own aggravating self-importance and scholarly smugness that any morsel of compelling human drama – and narrative forward momentum – is destroyed.  What we are lamentably left with is fantastic looking eye candy, which makes the film a mind-numbingly tedious, sleep inducing experience. 

The film is one really, really perplexing hybrid.  It’s a 1940’s WWII-era film noir (the opening credit montage creates a strong, evocative sense of this) and a fantasy that involves super human abilities that could have been the makings of the next M. Night Shyamalan debacle.  Set during the eve of World War II we meet the 70-year-old Dominic (the decent Tim Roth), who is a Romanian linguist who fears that his life has degenerated into loneliness and despair.  His scholarly pursuits have always obsessed him, that being the origin of language on earth, but he feels that as he is approaching the winter of his life that he will never adequately finished his research.  The main casualty of his work was the loss of a past love, Laura (the utterly gorgeous Alexandra Maria Lara).  As a result, he decides to end his life.   However, fate steps in and a bolt of lightning strikes Dominic and leaves him for dead.  

What then happens is the stuff of comic book super hero origins.  Instead of logically dying, Dominic finds himself in hospital bed, bandaged from head to toe, and then the improbable happens: the doctor that monitors him (the great Bruno Ganz, doing what he can with some truly laughable dialogue) discovers that Dominic is not only healing, but growing younger by the day.  His skin heals, his hair is growing back, the wrinkles on his face and body are tightening, and even his old teeth have popped out because of the presence of new teeth protruding against them.  In  short, Dominic is a medical miracle.  Soon, he learns that he even has more super human abilities, like being able to read books just by looking at them, seeing the thoughts of others, and willing objects into his hands, ala Luke Skywalker.  More importantly, he is now a young, viral man of 30 who now thinks that his newfangled powers will help him finish his work once and for all. 

Yet, those dang, pesky members of the Third Reich want to find Dominic for Hitler in order to discover the secret of his powers.  Hitler’s fascination with Dominic seems logical enough (imagine if one could heal an entire army, or turn back time).  Realizing that he is a marked man, Dominic flees to Switzerland under a new identity.  Time then rushes by, through the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and Dominic seemingly has not aged, but has acquired massive amounts of new research.  His final project is almost complete…that is until he meets Veronica. 

Veronica, of course, looks exactly like Dominic’s old flame Laura, and fate has stepped in with her as well.  She too has been struck by lightning, but in her case she is growing older, not younger.  To complicate matters, she also apparently lived a past life as a religious mystic that has vast warehouse of linguistic knowledge buried in her subconscious.  She also perpetually – and inconveniently – goes into violent trances where she regresses back in linguistic time, each time speaking a new-older language.  Here lies the central problem of Dominic’s current situation:  He has re-found love with a new woman that looks like the spitting image of his past girlfriend, but she also seems to be a conduit towards him finally discovering the very first language that humans spoke.  This, evidently, tears him up inside.  Dammit...love is never easy. 

YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, as stated, is simply wonderful to look at, and is never boring or prosaic as a visual experience.  Yet, the story grinds by at an elephantine pacing and by the sheer ludicrousness and absurdity of the whole story.  This is not helped by the fact that the film traverse back and forth in time, has characters walk in and leave, not to be heard from again, and that we have to bare watching really good actors (Ganz, Roth, and Lara) spew out dialogue that is about as endearing and exciting as a calculus lecture.  You sense Coppola being so unabashedly enraptured by the source material that a willingness to present a clear, well articulated, and invoicing story seems to have eluded him.  Instead, we get the impression of a director inebriated by his own absurd and senseless excesses.  I applaud and champion films that dare to be different and go against the rudimentary Hollywood formulas, but YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is so sedatingly incomprehensible, incoherent and colorless that its hard to find value in the material.  Coppola’s passion for the film shines through, no doubt, but it’s overshadowed by the obtuseness of his choices.  Snobbish banality and a dispiriting redundancy permeate this film’s essence. 

Watching YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is analogous to staring at an absolutely luminous and gorgeous woman while having to listen to nothing but unintelligible gibberish coming out of her mouth for two plus hours.  I find myself not caring to write anything further about this misguided Coppola effort, which should have been a proud return to form after a long sabbatical.  YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is a masterpiece of visual opulence, but an undeniable and egregious letdown on most other levels.  I didn’t care about the characters or human relationships.  I didn’t care about the underlining story, or what there was of it.  And I certainly was left perplexed by the weight of this film’s relentless and unfathomably sluggish pacing.  In the end, I see Coppola trying to say something with the film... but as to what that is...your guess is as good as mine.  It's essentially a bad David Lynchian mind screw job that feels like its a searing work of substance when it it really has is a genuine lack of storytelling clarity.

It has been noted that Coppola shot nearly 200 hours of footage and that his original cut was over three hours long.  At its current theatrical length, the film is seemingly unwatchable to the point head scratching irritation.  At three hours, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH would have been a career-killing catastrophe.  As for the 125 minutes I spent with it, all I cared about was promptly leaving the theatre when it ended.  

Certainly, this is the kiss of death for any film...no matter how exquisitely beautiful it does look.

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