Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Plots Without Regard
By Jonathan Pacheco
Youth Without Youth blipped briefly on my radar when it premiered; the return of Francis Ford Coppola excited me, but negative reviews quelled most of my enthusiasm. All I knew about the film was that it involved a man growing rapidly younger while his lover raced in the other direction. When the movie showed up on Netflix’s online streaming service, it once again aroused my interest, almost as an alternative to last year’s Benjamin Button. I soon found out that not only did Coppola’s film resemble Button, but it also contained traces of The Good German and possibly a Michael Crichton novel. I generally enjoy those things, but it was difficult to find much pleasure in Youth Without Youth. The director puts the film together skillfully, as if he never took a hiatus, but the rusty storytelling contradicts that.
One can easily segment the wildly different ideas that Youth Without Youth meshes together, but oddly the film never quite feels episodic. It moves more like a storyteller who realizes his yarn may be too “dull” for some, so he makes some sharp turns to keep their interest. Whether that’s Coppola’s doing or it stretches back to the original published story, I don’t know. Regardless, the feeling is present in the final product, which puts the blame on the director.
The film begins as a story about a scientific phenomenon and the repercussions and opportunities it provides. Next thing you know, you’re in the middle of a WWII sci-fi picture before ultimately finding yourself in a philosophical dilemma involving etymology. Honestly, I’m not sure what was wrong with the plot that began the film, or why Coppola felt the need to veer in the middle of it. Then again, the second plot was interesting too, as was the third one. We’re not dealing with dull material here, but it’s not material that was masterfully pieced together, consequently draining the film of much of its life.
Worse, Youth Without Youth rarely feels like it’s “about” anything. Sure, there’s plenty of plot to go around, but what does the film give us to really chew on? What can I ponder or dissect? We get glimpses at several possibilities — lovers aging in different directions, the origin of language, Nazi scientific practices — but the movie takes no care to cultivate or explore any of these ideas. It’s amazing how a movie with possibly too many ideas ends up seeming like a movie about nothing.
On the way to work one day, I ran through the entire plot of Youth Without Youth for my girlfriend. Two thirds into my description, she asked, “Is this a made-for-TV movie?”
“No, it was theatrical,” I said.
“And this made money?”
“Well, I don’t know about that.”
It’s miserably clear that Coppola didn’t know what he wanted from Youth Without Youth — or perhaps he did know, and didn’t realize what a mess of a film his ideas could create. As mentioned, the film shares some ambitions with The Good German. Both seek to reproduce the style of a long-gone era of Hollywood through formalism. While Soderbergh seemed certain in the impact he wanted his film to create, I’m not sure that Coppola was entirely clear on his own intentions. The film’s a bit of a fever dream, not entirely engaging, but somewhat lifeless, especially considering the director.