A couple years ago, all those stories about the voting blocs in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came out and confirmed what we all know: Oscars voters are overwhelmingly old white men.
On a related note, The Great Beauty is Italy's entry in the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. If The Great Beauty makes it as a finalist—so far 76 countries have submitted films—then it's got a great shot at winning. Its main character is a 65-year-old white man with no depth looking back at his life. It's the kind of thing that wins big at the Academy Awards based solely on membership.
It's not fair to compare The Great Beauty with, say, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (still the only "triple barf" ever levied on a movie in these pages) because The Great Beauty is made with skill, excellent camera work, and it's acted with dedication by people who seem to understand its characters.
It's also better than two other egregious movies released in 2013 about old white men, the wretched Renoir and the even worse The Artist and the Model. Those two films feature artists (one real-ish, one fictional) slobbering over nubile young women while feeling sorry for them selves, and though The Great Beauty does its fair share of slobbering over women, the women are mostly age-appropriate. But it's still bland, aimless and follows an old white guy as he ruminates on what he thinks is his wasted existence.
The old white guy is Jep (Toni Servillo, who's better than the screenplay deserves), a man who wrote a successful novel in his 20s and then spent the next 40 years living the good life, writing the occasional article, and generally becoming a sad sack and a misanthrope. The kind of guy you want to spend 140 minutes with, right?
No. Servillo, at least, understands that this meandering, episodic narrative needs his assured manner and wise choices in the face of absurdity that thinks it's deep. Why over-emote—leave that to some of the other cast members—when a simple shrug conveys everything?
And thus Jep is thrust into this wafer-thin story. He interviews a contemporary performance artist and cannily deflects her feeling of self-importance; he enjoys risotto with his editor who builds up his ego when he's feeling low; he celebrates the 65 th birthday that brings on feelings of underachievement. And then an acquaintance drops by to tell Jep that an old girlfriend has died—Jep's only true love, of course—and that sets Jep on a trial of self-searching.
The dead girlfriend trope doesn't become a major theme, and it's just one of many things that pops up in the narrative with all the care of a home demolition. At least Jep has the good sense to understand that he's somewhat trivial.
If Jep's presence feels similar to Marcello Mastroianni's in La Dolce Vita, that's no mistake. It's just that La Dolce Vita didn't seem to be grasping at straws. Take, for example, The Great Beauty's final hour, when Jep and his friends are consumed with the life of a nun modeled on Mother Teresa (Giusi Merli). It's supposed to be satire on one's purpose in life, et cetera, but it just seems like the bizarre punchline of a shaggy dog joke. Where's Thomas Pynchon when you need him?
In the end, there are things to recommend in The Great Beauty, chief among them Servillo's performance. Take him away, though, and the whole thing falls apart. He's just another old white guy wondering "what if." What if we stopped making movies like this?
THE GREAT BEAUTY
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino With Toni Servillo and Giusi Merli CCA Cinematheque NR 142 min.