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'The Great Beauty' is too long but worth savoring

The Rome-set "The Great Beauty" stars Toni Sevillo as an aging playboy who refuses to give up partying.

Toni Servillo plays an aging playboy in "The Great Beautiy." Credit: Janus Films Toni Servillo plays an aging playboy in "The Great Beautiy."
Credit: Janus Films

‘The Great Beauty’
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Stars: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The Italian export “The Great Beauty” has been compared to Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” in which a jaded journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) allowed himself to be sucked into Rome’ “good life” (i.e., the rich, bored and hedonistic). Indeed, this could be a modernized, three-decades-later sequel. Unfailingly chill and smirking, Jep (Toni Servillo), we’re told, once wrote a fantastic book. He’s been living off the acclaim for years, occasionally doing puff piece interviews but mostly lounging in his sleek bachelor pad, staying out till dawn dancing to techno on rooftops. He’s 65.

Jep worries about the age thing, but not that much. Throughout, friends decamp, either from his aging jet set circle or from Rome itself. Jep does little but go to ridiculous art shows that are (yes) Fellini-esque. Occasionally he flashes back to the girl that got away — three or four decades ago.

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That’s pretty much it for plot: Jep wandering through a life of desiccated decadence, one that’s no longer much fun but is, at least, not entirely boring. If it’s a “La Dolce Vita” sequel where all the good parties are over, it’s also a version of the 1960s Cuban film “Memories of Underdevelopment” minus the politics. In that classic, an aging playboy’s slow realization that he’s too old to be horsing around with young hotties is exacerbated by him doing it in post-Bay of Pigs Havana.

Jep has no major realization, and only a few minor ones. It still runs 2 ½ hours. It is, to be frank, a bit long. The over-length isn’t unnecessary — this is a lush film meant to be savored — but even the intentional redundancies start to feel redundant.

The director, Paolo Sorrentino, is a keyed-up director who loves roaming (or speeding) camerawork. He also loves stasis. He makes films about grotesques trapped in the persona they’ve erected. In “Il Divo,” he made Servillo — who, as here, has a great, decaying look — to look like notorious Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, who really does, as in the film, resemble Droopy Dog. In the America-set “This Must Be the Place,” Sorrentino put Sean Penn in the guise of a perpetually tired and depressed Robert Smith.

In “The Great Beauty,” the prison isn’t so much the person but Rome itself, and the life it allows one to live. The beauty is endless, but it’s also a tomb. Those who stay there live a kind of living death.

 
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