Currently screening during Chicago’s polar vortex at the Music Box Theater is Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Among the nine shortlisted films for Best Foreign film at this year’s Academy Awards (surviving presumed frontrunners Wadjda and The Past), The Great Beauty is paradoxically not a particularly inviting film. As if cut from the same aesthetic cloth as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Sorrentino’s film asserts itself as a celebration of excess. The film opens with a lavish production: a party that puts anything Jay Gatsby might throw to shame. But whereas Korine’s film conveyed a satirical edge throughout its imagery of bikini-clad women and reckless youth, Sorrentino’s motivations reek of self-importance, often times registering as unconvincing and simply trite. Capable of captivating the eye through Luca Bigazzi’s vivid cinematography, Sorrentino more often than not cuts through the images with dull exposition and an alarming sense of superiority.
Following the aforementioned party and moved by the loss of his ex-wife, Jep (Toni Servillo) begins reconsidering his life. Having provided a modest artistic contribution with his first and only novella decades ago, Jep’s later years have largely consisted of hedonistic tendencies - celebrating Rome’s night life while maintaining a celebrity presence through his often times demeaning interviews. A clear-cut member of the elite and privileged class of Rome, the subsequent quest of self-realization is a strained effort, both for Jep and the audience.
While the picture at times deals a comic card, it’s often met with an equally awkward transition of absurd drama. Toni Servillo proves capable of understanding the jarring juxtapositions that Sorrentino deploys, maneuvering through them with a clear-headed sense of whimsy. But much like the visual flourishes of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, the sensory elements become exhausting and the self-seriousness suffocating. Sorrentino often complicates the images with a measure of condensation, justifying that Jep’s hedonism is something to be lauded when compared to the other vile characters that occupy the film. Excessive vileness could be tolerable if the picture didn’t make so many dunderheaded attempts to sanctify its lead character - a scene where Jep interviews a performing artist only rationalizes that Jep’s behavior ranks higher on the hierarchy of acceptable and sane behavior.
My difficulty with its lead character is a problem in writing and amplified with Sorrentino’s direction, where the word “bombastic” seems insufficient to appropriately describe what’s going on. But for a portion of The Great Beauty’s runtime, I was able to give myself into the visual excesses, allowing the stunning imagery to wash over me, unaware that it was all going to drown me in the end.