Aging Bull

Francis Ford Coppola's comeback drama makes absolutely no sense.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 23, 2008

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Director's rut: Will Coppola (right, with Tim Roth) ever return to his former brilliance?

Sometimes creative freedom is overrated.

Whatever to do with Francis Ford Coppola? It's curious to note that the larger-than-life one-time wunderkind whose name is practically synonymous with the New Hollywood revolution of the 1970s actually directed only four features during that hallowed decade. Then again, those movies were The Conversation, both Godfathers and Apocalypse Now--not just some of the best movies of their era, but some of the best movies, period.

The most common theory is that, like Brando's Col. Kurtz, Coppola lost his mind in the jungle during the years-long boondoggle that was Apocalypse's cursed production. A bit of his later work has some passionate defenders--indeed, I once got in a drunken argument with a dear friend who chided me for giggling too much while we were attempting to rewatch The Outsiders. But even Il Maestro himself (who seems to spend more time these days burnishing his own legend than actually, you know, working) has admitted that a lot of these pictures were just gigs-for-hire, digging himself out of the financial disaster incurred by his lavish, curiously inert 1982 musical flop One From the Heart.

It's been a full 10 years since Coppola last stepped behind a camera, and that was for the ferociously mediocre John Grisham adaptation The Rainmaker. (Although some rumors still persist that Coppola stepped in and reshot portions of the 2000 sci-fi bomb Supernova after director Walter Hill was fired.) Since then he's found his fortune in the wine business and made quite a bit of cash recutting Apocalypse Now into a pale shadow of the original achievement.

Coppola is so flush right now that he was finally able to realize the elusive dream that kept almost bankrupting him for so many years: self-financing and exerting complete creative control over his eagerly anticipated comeback flick Youth Without Youth.

Coppola claims to have made this film solely to please himself, calling it the kind of purely personal statement he's always wanted to make. I'll confess I've been reading an awful lot of interviews with the man lately, because I saw Youth Without Youth weeks ago, and I still can't tell you what it's even supposed to be about.

Based on a story by Mircea Eliade, the film stars chronic scenery- chewer Tim Roth as Dominic, an elderly Romanian linguistics professor who's on his way to commit suicide when he's struck by lightning. Sure, the blast should've killed him, but it's only made him younger. Once they take off the bandages he's 40 again, and that wonderful actor Bruno Ganz gets stuck delivering bizarre medical exposition, struggling to maintain his dignity while informing Dominic that he has shiny new teeth growing in behind the rotted old ones.

The suddenly sprightly Roth develops some mighty strange superpowers, like being able to read books simply by waving his hand over them, and the uncanny ability to make Nazis shoot themselves in the face by squinting really hard. Side-effects include the recurring appearance of a sinister doppelganger who smokes cigarettes and offers bad advice, as if one Tim Roth per movie wasn't enough. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Matt Damon shows up for a couple minutes as a shady American operative, and he's clearly as confused as the audience.

But wait, there's more. Dominic is reunited with what seems to be a reincarnation of his long-dead love, played by fetching newcomer Alexandra Maria Lara. Too bad she's struck by lightning as well (what are the odds?), and begins channeling a seventh-century Sumerian mystic named Rupini while convulsing and speaking Sanskrit in her sleep. Or something like that.

Sumptuously photographed in glossy digital video by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., Youth Without Youth is extremely well crafted, handsomely mounted and almost impossible to sit through. Coppola obviously has a lot on his mind about history and aging, at least judging from the gigantic gobs of academia and philosophizing that pass for dialogue in the picture. But it's a clear case of an artist indulging his personal vision and getting so carried away by his muse, he's forgotten the most important rule of filmmaking: Other people have to sit through this shit too.

Youth Without Youth
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz
Opens Fri., Feb. 8

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