May 19, 2008

Youth Without Youth


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): **

Has Francis Ford Coppola ever been much of a screenwriter? Don't his real strengths, such as they are, lie in his conceptions, and sometimes in his visuals? (Conceptions more admired, perhaps, for their attempts than for their actual successes.) In any case, with most of his more prominent movies, he's had a lot of good help and/or source material--from Puzo's Godfather and Grisham's The Rainmaker to S.E. Hinton's Rumble Fish and The Outsiders, and John Milius on Apocalypse Now. Though I didn't much care for The Conversation when it was first released (a rare time that Coppola doesn't share screenplay credit), I know it's considered one of his best and plan to re-see it soon. I admit to not being an enormous fan of the filmmaker, but that is no reason to heap contempt on his latest work to arrive in the video bin: Youth Without Youth (which is based on an outside source, too -- the book by Romanian author Mircea Eliade -- but scripted by Coppola). No, indeed -- not when there are so many other good reasons for denigrating it.

"What was he thinking?" came oft to mind as we watched this initially interesting and visually striking movie (shot in Romania) that, within a half an hour of its over-two hour running time, begins to grow sillier and sillier. My companion now calls it "Youth Without Brains," with which I am inclined to agree because it actually seems as if it were conceived on the run while being filmed. Usually I am loath to give away plot elements, but once the initial premise has been established, what happens is so repetitive and tiresome that--who would care? (Still, I will adhere to the rules I've set up for myself and shut up about plot--except to ask why our protagonist waits so unconscionably long to use his magical powers to induce the naughty Nazi to point that gun at his own head. Best not to ask.)

Tim Roth is usually enjoyable to watch, and he does his best under these dire circumstances (see him in Tornatore's The Legend of 1900 for his best work), Alexandra Maria Lara makes a fetching love interest (she also helps make another not-so-hot movie bearable: the recently straight-to-video I Really Hate My Job), and Bruno Ganz proves again that he improves almost every film he's in. Scenery and sets are often gorgeous to look at, that's admirable. Less admirable: Coppola's habit of refusing to subtitle foreign tongues--from German and eastern European to Sanskrit and other odd ones referred to as pre-history and newly-created. For non-linguists, this will offer further excuse for not understanding or following what is going on, but I suspect that audiences are luckier not knowing what is being said.

It's been awhile since I've come this close to falling asleep on a film, but I had to pinch myself and widen my peepers a number of times as the end--finally!--approached. Still, it's Coppola, so who you gonna listen to: me, or your movie buff self? Right. I would have done--in fact, I did--the same thing.

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Posted by cphillips at May 19, 2008 2:24 PM
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