The Great Beauty presents us once again with that great fantasy of a writer’s life as being almost entirely comprised of drinking, bed-hopping, and, perhaps most importantly, being constantly told by friends and passersby alike just how brilliant they are. Director Paolo Sorrentino shares with Federico Fellini, to whom he’s already been inevitably compared, a taste for a very specific kind of myth-making: of art being fashioned seemingly by accident while its creator is living a grandly seductive live as a Great Artist. It’s an inviting daydream, and there’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker indulging it, particularly one with Sorrentino’s impressive gifts for orchestrating complicated pageant sequences with a sense of pace and specificity of texture that render such whims so remarkably palatable. Problems normally arise, however, when a director is faced with having to breathe an element of third-act conflict into their fantasy of sin and unchecked avarice, because the resulting attempts usually scan as fatuous at best, and quasi-offensively disproportionately self-pitying, at worst.
For 90 minutes or so, The Great Beauty is a, well, beautifully mounted expression of the fantasy of Rome as a city of sex and decay that’s always ripe for an indulgent Italian filmmaker’s expressive probing lens. Sorrentino conventionally contrasts the relics of the old world—the cathedrals, the museums, the amphitheaters—with the baubles of the contemporary aging artistic elite who spend all night dancing on rooftops with pretty and sculpted young things while drinking and eating priceless, aesthetically impeccable cocktails and morsels. While the women are clearly partaking of this debauch, Sorrentino’s fantasy, again in the tradition of Fellini’s most famously proffered daydreams, is primarily male: Women’s breasts are big, shapely, and often bare, and their asses are always mouth-wateringly round and prominent.
At the center of this heaven on Earth is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), an aging journalist who’s still coasting on the great novella he wrote over 40 years prior. And Jep’s, you guessed it, at his spiritual wit’s end with all this privilege: He wants to live in a manner that means something, damn it, and write something that means something, and it’s at that point that all the erotic and potentially satirical air leaks out of the picture. Jep is that most insidious kind of self-delusional: He uses his self-awareness as a dodge to further indulge his fictions of himself. Jep knows that wallowing in his self-pity is a cop-out, and he often admits to that cop-out so as to allow himself to continually cop out.
And that’s the entire movie: the story of a man, who isn’t presented with the slightest whiff of a real problem, who eventually owns up to his superficiality with the implication that he might change in a manner that ultimately doesn’t really matter to anyone anyway. Sorrentino occasionally attempts to ground Jep’s plight in something weightier with the stray reference to the political frictions that would characterize a Berlusconi-era high society, but his film is really just a huge turn-on that has the bad manners to go sour, succumbing to its own self-delusions of moral/political grandeur.