Age Without Wisdom

Sometimes, my anticipation for a particular film – Eyes Wide Shut, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, There Will Be Blood – becomes so intense that I have dreams about seeing the film before I actually see it. Inevitably, I wake up from these dreams completely relieved that my brain’s nightmarish concoction was not the actual film. Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth is a nightmarish concoction from which you never wake up.

After waiting ten years for a new Coppola picture, our wish has been granted with what is, in some ways, a remake of Jack. While this new film may seem more Coppolaesque than his 1996 Robin Williams vehicle, which was largely written off as a project-for-hire, both films express Coppola’s interest in metaphysical time travel, his grand metaphor for immortality. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) should be considered the first in his unofficial time-travel trilogy. Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) traveled back in time to her high school years, but maintained her adult mind. Jack had an aging disorder that made him age four times faster than a normal human being, giving him the body of a 40-year-old Robin Williams as he entered the fifth grade. And now, Dominic (Tim Roth) gets hit by lightning, which makes his body regress from 70 to 40, but he’s still in the present and maintains his 70-year-old mind. Each one uses a high concept to get at the melancholy of aging, and each one has gotten progressively worse as Coppola ages.

Coppola’s sadness about his mortality is clearly heartfelt. In introducing the film at the Paris Theatre – a New York cinema that has its own very pungent stench of death – Coppola proclaimed his wish to be considered a young independent filmmaker again. It appears that with Youth Without Youth, he has succeeded to an alarming degree, regressing with his writing and his aesthetics to the level of a student film – sophomoric, pretentious and incoherent. At times, it also resembles some of the 1960s counterculture’s most dated and forgotten works – the ones with Italian actors who may or may not be dubbed, musical scores that never let up, and dialogue so awful it would be laughable if you weren’t so bored.

Youth Without Youth is a series of raw ideas in search of a writer, a director and real actors. (If only Coppola had had the sense to cast his nephew, Cage, whose melodramatic tics can keep even the worst film alive, rather than the utterly humorless Tim Roth.) The movie’s ideas include – but are not limited to – thermodynamics, Nazism, the human soul, art vs. life, life vs. romance, romance vs. art, and of course getting old.

All of these ideas are worthwhile ones to think about. (Im)mortality is an old staple of the cinema, since the camera kills whatever it shoots, rendering human beings into ghosts and shadows that are eternally preserved. Altman touched on this in his swan song by paying homage to the death of radio, while Welles obsessed over it in his debut film by making a man’s soul the MacGuffin at the center of a detective-mystery. It is all the more remarkable that Coppola has nothing whatsoever to add to the subject.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Coppola is just ahead of his time, just like Dominic, creating a new language that no one but he can understand.