YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (2007, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 124 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Back in September of last year, The New York Times ran an article called “Francis Ford Coppola, A Kid To Watch.” A.O. Scott’s article spun a tale of how the sixty-eight year old director had re-stoked the fire in his belly while working quickly and efficiently with a young Romanian crew on his brainy and reflective comeback. It was an enticing idea, that after poking around his vineyard for the last decade Coppola had kicked off whatever funk had led him to make misfire after misfire over the last twenty years to craft a audacious return-to-form. It was due to appear in the late Fall in time for Oscar season, yet month after month its release date was pushed suspiciously back.
Now here it is February and after collecting a pile of dismissive reviews, Youth Without Youth hobbles into Philly theaters. Could it really be as bad as critics were saying? Even with drastically lowered expectations it is my sad duty to report Coppola’s latest is a total disaster, as bad a film by a major director as I’ve seen it quite a long time. You would have to go back to George Lucas’ inept directorial return in The Phantom Menace to find a better example of a name talent whose gifts had so completely abandoned them.
Tim Roth plays the fussily-named Dominic Matei, a morose seventy-year-old Romania academic who is struck by lightning and returned to his youthful state on the eve of WW2. He gains the ability to absorb knowledge from books by waving his hand over them, becoming the smartest man in the world. From here he’s pursued by Nazis, femme fatale-types and an unbilled Matt Damon, who attempts to lure him to America. While globetrotting, Dominic mostly spends his time thinking superior thoughts with his ever-present double and pining for his long-lost Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara).
It is all nicely shot, often in the rich browns that might remind you of the original Godfather, and Coppola isn’t shy about throwing in a little visual razzle-dazzle, with rampant dissolves, slow-motion and frequently turning the camera sideways like he’s shooting the Riddler’s hide-out. However its burnished production does little to cover up the fact that Coppola seems to have lost the knack for telling a story. The film has an endless collection of scenes of Dominic dashing off to some far-off location yet whatever conflict is fueling this journey is left infuriatingly vague. The film is set up like a mystery but exactly what is being searched for is unclear. Coppola’s life-less script, filled with ludicrous zen riddles about dreams and reality, might be aiming for some Antonioni-style existential conundrum yet Coppola The Thinker is revealed to be embarrassingly dim.
Again like Lucas’ Menace, Coppola seems disturbingly incapable of bringing his main figures to life. His Dominic and Veronica are more like ideas for characters than actual people and Coppola seems clueless about what details make people seem human. We should be suspicious when filmmakers take such lengthy sabbatical, it seems directing films employs mental muscles that will atrophy if left unused. With Youth Without Youth — movie titles are rarely so painfully and succinctly apt — Coppola revisits the bare-bones production style of his youth, no doubt hoping to summon up the gravity and friction of those celebrated early works. Instead, we get a shivering old lion huddled around a fire that appears to have gone out a long time ago.