Coppola had long struggled to finish what he viewed as his own important life work, "Megalopolis," and was so moved by "Youth Without Youth" that he decided to turn it into a movie instead - his first in nearly a decade.
Well, he finished this one, all right. He completely overdid it.
Coppola's depiction of an aging linguistics professor (Tim Roth) who gets younger and more intelligent after surviving a lightning strike is an incomprehensible, pretentious, meandering mess - so self-serious, it's laughable.
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Of course it has some impressive imagery (Mihai Malaimare Jr. is the cinematographer), scenes that are beautiful in their intentional artificiality. This is the filmmaker behind "The Godfather" trilogy and "Apocalypse Now," after all; no one ever questioned that he has an eye for the theatrical.
And you have to give this master filmmaker credit for trying to create a picture on such a small, personal scale after all this time. It's something he hadn't done in a very long time. In theory, it should have invigorated him.
But too often the effects look ridiculously cheap, and the darker the tale turns, with characters being reincarnated, appearing as body doubles of themselves and babbling in Sanskrit, the sillier it seems.
"Youth Without Youth" begins with Roth's 70-year-old Dominic Matei on the verge of taking his own life with the pills he's stashed away in an envelope. He's in Bucharest, 1938. Just as he's crossing the street, zap! Dominic gets hit by lightning (it looks like something out of "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"), collapsing with a scorched thump, his umbrella burning nearby.
Not only does he live but he miraculously gets better. Younger, even. He appears half his age - a new set of teeth come in - but he retains the wisdom of his years. Then he gets wiser, finds he knows languages he never studied, and eventually can simply pass his hand over a book (which is accompanied by a cheesy flash of light and a sizzling sound) to learn its contents.
These new talents wow his personal physician (Bruno Ganz) and draw the interest of Nazi scientists, who use the mysterious Woman in Room 6 (Alexandra Pirici) to lure him in. (Her copy of "Mein Kampf" and the swastika on her garter should have been clues that she's not such a nice girl after all.)
But as Dominic travels to Geneva to escape, he can't seem to get Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), his lost love from 40 years earlier, out of his mind. Luckily, he meets a young woman named Veronica who happens to look just like Laura (also played by Lara) and who also happens to get hit by lightning, which gives her knowledge of languages she never knew she had.
What are the odds?!
"Youth Without Youth" skips around the globe to India, Malta and, eventually, back to Dominic's hometown of Piatra Neamt in Romania. He gains an evil-twin body double (also Roth) who talks to him and eggs him on; Veronica thinks she's a 7th-century woman named Rupini and starts screeching in ancient tongues in the middle of the night.
On and on it goes - and yes, it's all as nonsensical as it sounds - with Coppola relying too heavily on upside-down images, tricks with mirrors and gimmicks like having supposedly symbolic roses pop up where they weren't before.
"Youth Without Youth" is far from the masterwork Coppola and his audience have been anticipating for years - in his broad filmography, it's more likely to be viewed as a blip.
"Youth Without Youth," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is
rated R for some sexuality, nudity and a brief disturbing image.
Running time: 128 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
By Christy Lemire