Youth Without Youth
Francis Ford Coppola first film in 10 years is his most personal since 1982's One From the Heart, but unfortunately this fever dream about regained youth is no more satisfying than the cash jobs he took in the 1980s and the 1990s.
For years Coppola tried to get Megalopolis off the ground. When he failed to nail the sci-fi epic's script, he turned his attention to Romanian author Mircea Eliade's novella Youth Without Youth. After years of doing Hollywood's bidding to pay off the debts stemming from One From the Heart, Coppola clearly felt an emotional connection to a story about a writer trying to complete his life's work. When we first meet Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) in pre-World War Two Bucharest, the 70-year-old professor has resigned himself to never finishing his book about the origin of language. He's even contemplating suicide. Then he's struck by lightning. Burned beyond recognition, and initially unable to talk or move, Matei stuns his doctor (Bruno Ganz) by making a full recovery. He's also now looks and feels like a man 30 years his junior. But Matei is forced into hiding when the Nazis take an interest in his renewed youthfulness. He spends the war years in Switzerland, where he works on his book with renewed vigor and uses his newfound powers to make money. But he's not alone. Matei's philosophical quandary--will he employs his powers for good or evil?--results in the manifestation of a double with whom he debates everything. He does find himself flesh-and-blood company when the war ends. Matei and Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) meet cute--he finds her in a cave hours after she, too, has been struck by lightning. Only his newfound soul mate now possesses the transmigrated soul of a 7th century Indian woman--and "Rupini" holds the key to Matei finishing his masterwork.
Thank goodness Tim Roth dispenses with the aging makeup quickly. He wears it worse than Javier Bardem does in Love in the Time of Cholera. Once Roth's out of his hospital bed, he makes a masterful physical transformation from old man to young buck. Slowly, but surely, he loses his shuffle, straightens his shoulders, and begins to walk with all the energy and purpose of a man half his age. While finding much delight in Matei's miraculous recovery, Roth also delves into the frustrated writer's subconscious to convey the fears, suspicions and contradictions that come with being placed in such a unique situation. More important, Roth never resorts to unnecessary theatrics to portray a "strange superman of the future" occasionally at odds with himself. There's a playfulness and confidence to the double that's missing from Matei, but Roth communicates this in a subtle but powerful manner. Lara, though, is awfully blank as Veronica and Rupini. Yes, Veronica and Rupini exist only to push Matei to his limits morally and professionally, but Lara fails to at least make either woman vaguely interesting than their defined roles. As Matei's doctor, Ganz stumbles through Youth Without Youth with a look of astonishment plastered on his face. Andre Hennicke is all business as a Nazi scientist determined to get his hands on Matei. Alexandra Pirici is suitably seductive as a German spy who does get to put her hands on Mateiand inevitably pays the price for preventing Matei from becoming "a valuable human specimen."
Unlike Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Youth Without Youth never draws you into its long-suffering protagonist's plight or pursuit of excellence. It's not because things get too outlandish. Francis Ford Coppola quickly establishes this is a Twilight Zone-ish portrait of how much a man is willing to sacrifice to complete his life's work. Matei's condition offers many avenues to explore. What would you do if you had 30 years shaved off your life? Unfortunately, Matei is so wrapped up in his work that it's impossible to concern yourself too much for him or his goals. Coppola never shows through Matei's eyes how the world changes and fails to create a sense that his resurrection has any great meaning. Coppola doesn't even examine the full extent of Matei's powers. Matei's initial transformation from suicidal failure to "living dead man" is compelling, but that's mostly because of the wartime intrigue to be found early in the film. Once hostilities end, and Matei meets the verbose Veronica, Youth Without Youth immediately becomes pretentious and protracted. And, as it plods toward its inevitable conclusion, you'll not care what decision Matei will make when he must choose between Veronica and his book. And that's the worst thing to say about a film that marks the emancipation of a true original. While this misspent Youth is not a disaster like One From the Heart, Coppola needs to make better use of his newfound artistic and financial freedom. The last thing anyone wants is for him to have to whore himself out to Hollywood again.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.