I try to be tolerant when people insist on telling me about their dreams. You know what I'm talking about: a well-meaning friend, in the throes of self-discovery, tries to explain this revelatory dream he had the night before where he was back in grade school, but it was really his parents' living room, and his teacher wasn't actually his teacher at all, but rather his ex-girlfriend from five years ago. When faced with this situation, I try not to change the subject too abruptly. After all, the dream-teller is a friend. I ought to humor his compulsion to find meaning in nonsense.
I had a similar feeling while watching Francis Ford Coppola
's newest movie, Youth Without Youth. Since he started making films in the late '60s, Coppola has given moviegoers more intense pleasures than perhaps any other American director. Films such as The Conversation, The Godfather, The Godfather II, and Apocalypse Now all stand as epic achievements of modern cinema. His more recent films -- like Jack and The Rainmaker -- are in no way recognizable as the work of a genius, but his past greatness inclines me to cut him some slack when he's struggling to say something. And Coppola is definitely struggling to say something in Youth Without Youth. It's a shame, then, that what he manages to get out is so incoherent and banal, so much like a clueless friend's stupid dream. Article continues below
Set in Europe before World War II, the plot centers on a brilliant linguist named Dominic (Tim Roth
) who is determined to discover the mysteries of the origin of language -- a lofty goal, to be sure, but one he feels utterly compelled to fulfill, even when his work costs him the love of his life, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara
). The film's early scenes lay the framework for this drama -- the competition between a life's work and a life of love -- jumping backward and forward in time, with Dominic young and zealous in one scene and aged and disappointed in the next.
Dominic is in his aged state, still vainly pursuing his impossible research task, when he's struck by a magnificent (and non-figurative) bolt of lightning. But rather than kill him, the lightning instead endows Dominic with superhuman powers. He can digest the entire contents of books by merely picking them up. He can will objects to move and see into people's thoughts. He is even restored to a state of youth, taking on the appearance of a man in his thirties, despite his advanced age. With his new powers and youth on his side, his implausible goal to understand the genesis of language suddenly seems attainable.
If all of this sounds fantastical and weird and a tad incoherent, that's because it is, and it only gets worse as the film slogs forward. Over the next couple hours, Dominic is by chance reunited with Laura, only now she's a completely different person, a woman named Veronica, who in a past life was a religious mystic and who now holds the key to vast stores of spiritual wisdom. Nazis are involved. They of course want to harness Dominic's powers for their own nefarious ends. Even Matt Damon
pops up in a cameo as an OSS operative hoping to lure Dominic to assist the Allied Forces. Decades pass by as Dominic amasses knowledge of language, philosophy, and religion. Continents are traversed as Dominic and Veronica investigate the most arcane mysteries of existence. And a whole lot of bad dialogue issues from the mouths of a host of talented actors.
The bad writing is in fact the central problem with Youth Without Youth. Coppola is credited with writing the screenplay, just as he was in the previously mentioned masterpieces, but his writing has "improved" with age in the same way that his contemporary George Lucas's has. Which is to say that it hasn't. It's gotten worse -- to the point where a significant amount of personal embarrassment ought to be involved. Characters behave inscrutably. Florid philosophical pronouncements abound. The "rules" of the fantasy world Coppola creates shift arbitrarily for the sake of convenience. (For instance, why is a linguist with an infinite capacity for memory unfamiliar with a reasonably common ancient language? Answer: Because it's easier for the screenwriter to write it that way -- that's why.)
Scattered throughout this dross are a handful of gorgeous shots, and Roth does a commendable job laboring his way through a difficult role. But perhaps the brightest spot of Youth Without Youth is Lara. Her beauty is positively luminous and her acting chops aren't too bad either. The simple fact of her presence improves every scene that she's in, but even she isn't enough. Youth Without Youth is the work of a master artist trying to regain the brilliance of his early career. However, much like the aged protagonist of his film, Coppola just isn't up to the task.