‘Beauty’ scores visually but lacks soul-searching theme

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, November 27, 2013 4:18pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Nobody will complain about the sumptuous presentation of the new Italian film “The Great Beauty.” This lush-life movie cruises through the chi-chi homes and scenic streets of Rome, a guided tour of fashionable partying Italian-style.

The question is: What else has this film got going for it? And that gets a little more complicated.

“The Great Beauty” is partly a tribute to stylish early-1960s Italian filmmaking, especially Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Our focal point is Jep Gambardella, a journalist celebrating his 65th birthday as the story begins.

Jep is a celebrity in his own right, and part of his legend is that he penned a well-received novel when he was a young man but hasn’t written fiction since.

Everybody keeps asking him about it, and after a while we begin to suspect that Jep doesn’t suffer from writer’s block — he’s just undisciplined, especially when surrounded by the temptations of the socialite crowd he runs with.

The film gets some good mileage out of the people Jep encounters because of his job. In one sequence he dresses down a performance artist whose act consists of clobbering herself in the head while naked.

In another, he investigates a bizarre plastic surgery clinic that looks like it sprang from the imagination of David Lynch.

As in the Fellini film, the high-flying lifestyle on display is touched by disenchantment. Jep has been surprised by a revelation about his distant past, and his newfound soul-searching is intended to make the film something more than just a round of glamorous encounters, most of which end with the sun rising at the end of a party.

I liked the movie’s visual feast, but I wasn’t entirely convinced about the soul searching. Director Paolo Sorrentino gets all the surfaces right — you’re seeing privileged angles on a city that’s been photographed many times already.

Toni Servillo gives a nicely world-weary performance as Jep (Servillo was amazing as a political operator in Sorrentino’s “Il Divo”).

But somehow it doesn’t all click, and the post-mid-life crisis feels like standard-issue scriptwriting, albeit with a colorful backdrop.

One grace note at the end, though: After the movie’s hustle and bustle, stick around for the credits. This quiet final sequence might be an indication of what Jep’s been missing all these years.

“The Great Beauty” (two and a half stars)

A sort of updated nod to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” in which a 65-year-old magazine writer (Toni Servillo) becomes disenchanted with his high-flying lifestyle. Paolo Sorrentino’s film is full of lush-life eye candy, although it doesn’t quite convince in the soul-searching department. In Italian, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity.

Showing: Varsity.

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