The Great Beauty (Not rated, probably R) (142 min.) — After winning the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, Italy's entry The Great Beauty is the de facto favorite to claim the Academy Award in the same category. Cut from similarly sexy and satirical cloth as Federico Fellini's masterworks a half-century ago, Paolo Sorrentino's movie glides like reverie, probing the emptiness that can result from living a full life.
Jep Gambardella, played by the stealthily expressive Toni Servillo, has been king of Rome's high life for decades, revered as the author of an Italian literary treasure. That is Jep's only enduring artistic accomplishment, his talent otherwise frittered away on personality profiles, like a fatuous performance artist whose "art" consists of nude masochism, taken down several pegs by his mocking questioning.
The propping-up of junk to the level of art is a recurring theme in The Great Beauty, like a bratty child's tantrums earning millions because she's armed with cans of paint. Jep sees through these phonies, after celebrating them for his own success. He embraces that hypocrisy, too old now to "waste any more time doing things I don't want to do." The audience observes Rome's debauched culture — luxuriously filmed by Luca Bigazzi — as passively as Jep's bemused bystander to this carnival of artifice.
In his leisure time, and there's plenty, Jep returns to the pulsing nightlife he's tiring of: garish gatherings with a social circle of so-called friends primed for his methodical demolishing of egos. Jep is willing to accommodate, with a cynical streak wider than his crocodile smile. Throughout The Great Beauty, Sorrentino toys with the flip-side ugliness of success, making his movie somewhat akin to The Wolf of Wall Street, with clearer purpose and English subtitles. The pointlessness of Jep's journey is Sorrentino's point, richly made. Shown with English subtitles. A- (Tampa Theatre)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic