June 27, 2008

Mini-review: Youth Without Youth (movie)

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

Youth Without Youth (movie; 2007)
Written by Francis Ford Coppola, form the novella by Mircea Eliade
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

So hey, wait, wasn't 2007 supposed to be the big "comeback" year of writer/director Francis Ford Coppola? Didn't I read something about that in some magazine somewhere? It'd be welcome, for sure -- one of the badboy film-school darlings of '70s cinema, Coppola virtually dominated that decade with such fare as The Godfather and Godfather II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, films considered by most to be some of the best movies the '70s have to offer, sometimes even the best films of all time. Ah, but then something started to slip away from Coppola, his films slowly starting to feel less fresh and showing more cracks -- 1983's much-anticipated The Outsiders, for example, was less than it could've been, '84's The Cotton Club even more so, with such late-'80s work as the Vietnam-themed Gardens of Stone suddenly seen as middling "topic of the week" movies by most, an example of Coppola suddenly playing catch-up instead of leading the pack. And thus do we arrive at the last twenty years of Coppola's career, a string of flops that get more and more embarrassing as the timeline continues -- Godfather III (ugh), Bram Stoker's Dracula (yeccch), Jack (zuh?), and finally the career nadir known as The Rainmaker. (A John Grisham adaptation, Coppola? Seriously? Et tu, Brutus?)

Youth Without Youth, the movie

So it was welcome news to cineastes, then, when it was announced in 2007 that after a ten-year hiatus from directing, Coppola had decided to once again take on a highly personal, highly artsy, extremely challenging project as his next film -- a lush yet low-budget adaptation of the 1976 quantum-physics philosophical novella Youth Without Youth, by a Romanian intellectual named Mircea Eliade who many Romanians worship like a cultural god, entirely self-financed so that not even the slightest amount of studio compromises would have to be made. And all of this made Coppola's fans and apologists rightly cheer, in that it all echoed the period in the '70s when he was making his greatest work; the years he was a rebel and maverick, when he was passionate about his personal projects and unwilling to see them altered in any way. Ah, but then the movie arrived last Christmas, and suddenly there was a conspicuous vacuum of discussion online about it, a curious lack of conversation that was unusual in these "everyone's a critic" days; and the movie only ended up making $240,000 in the US (eventually grossing $2 million worldwide), and then quietly disappearing from the theatres without anyone hardly even noticing, and now arriving even more quietly on DVD this spring with even less people noticing.

So what happened? Well, it's just...it's just not very good, is what happened, a laboring and mostly disappointing experiment that nonetheless shows a few bright moments of promise, something you could champion if coming from a 24-year-old fresh out of school, but infinitely frustrating when coming from the guy who brought us Apocalypse Freaking Now. Because Coppola's better than this, we all know it, and we all know it precisely because of looking at his earlier movies; and that's what's most frustrating about Youth Without Youth, is it could've at least approached the level of his best work if only he'd changed...something about it. And what is that 'something?' Well, see, that's where it gets difficult, which is why I think there's been such a lack of discussion online about the movie; because the fact is that from a technical standpoint Coppola does just fine here, turning in a serviceable script and hiring competent actors, legitimately thinking like an underground filmmaker again when it came to the formalistic subjects of cinematography, location shooting, camera choices and the like. When you add it all together, it sums up just fine; and that's precisely the problem, that the finished film is simply okay, simply the same thing any 24-year-old with an HD camera and a rich dot-com buddy slash executive producer could create.

Maybe it's just that this is a story anyone would have a hard time adapting into a visual medium; it's a notoriously heady inner-brain story, after all, the trippy memoir of a man who basically ages backwards through the 20th century (er, actually, it's more complicated than that, but I'm not going to get into it), throwing an intergenerational love story in there along the way, smartly referencing the Edwardian fascination with the occult and Eastern religions back in the 1910s through '30s, and basically being the dense, atmospheric, philosophical book you can just imagine a bunch of eastern European nerds going all crazy for, but that makes for notoriously difficult film projects. Or maybe it's that Coppola is too diversified by now in his non-film life, comfortably fat and upper-class and resting on his laurels among his little winery and his little lit mag and his little post-production house and whatever the hell else he's got out there in the wilds of California where his little Zoetrope empire is. Maybe this was the real key to the success of his early work -- the constant threat of life-crumbling financial catastrophe if his cutting-edge films were even one ounce less than brilliant. Lord knows, the threat of not making rent has certainly pushed a lot of other artists throughout history into producing their best work; Lord knows that comfortable middle-class status has ruined more artists than just about anything else you can mention, including drugs and suicide.

In any case, the result is the same: a movie that's only so-so, that makes you shrug and mutter "meh" at the end, a movie with clever moments but that like I said are more appropriate for a college grad helming his first-ever feature, not the guy who was once hailed for changing the very film industry itself. I definitely award kudos to Coppola for trying, that's for sure, and I do think that his re-learned street-smarts about digital film and what can be done with it reflects something good about him as an artist; if nothing else, Youth Without Youth proves that Coppola still at least has the potential to put out a couple of more masterpieces here in the winter of his career, could really rise to Godfather-like heights again if he could simply get rid of whatever ephemeral thing held him back here. Maybe a couple of years of drought at the winery; or perhaps it's as simple as picking a better story next time. (Psst -- Coppola, next time, why not pick a visually friendly story from your own literary magazine, some writer who Zoetrope's fans love but who is otherwise young and unknown? If you really want to get ingratiated again with the young underground artistic community, that'd be a great way to start.) Here's hoping that Coppola will try again, and do it soon, and next time give us something that will provoke a whole lot more conversations and online debates.

Out of 10: 7.9

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:25 AM, June 27, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |