It is, perhaps, impossible to make an ode to Rome without invoking Federico Fellini, the great Italian filmmaker of "La Dolce Vita" and "Roma." Though Paolo Sorrentino does so only indirectly in "La grande bellezza," or "The Great Beauty," it's impossible not to think of the maestro ... and how Sorrentino pales in comparison.
Italy's official submission for Academy Award consideration plays at times like a more conventional, less daring version of 1972's "Roma." Reluctant journalist Jep Gambardella ("Gomorrah"'s Toni Servillo, here vaguely annoying) is famous for being famous, known for his one-and-done early novel but more so these days as "king of the socialites." A typically self-aware snob defined by cynical ennui, the distressingly privileged Gambardella attends soirees by defeatist default, since there's nothing better to do. He finds a perch and looks down at his peers as they dance-train to "We No Speak Americano." When pressed, he will insult his peers to their faces, calling them on their misplaced superiority, thorough hypocrisy, lack of ambition and failure of accomplishment.
Of course, when he lashes out, he also acknowledges his own self-loathing, but we're meant to sympathize with him because he is smarter than the rest, and because he is willing to face the truth. The sympathies don't actually kick in until he nebulously decides to do something about his human condition, which involves attempts to care (mostly about his editor, a proud little person played by Giovanna Vignola), strike up new relationships (as with a north-of-40 stripper played by Sabrina Ferilli), and perhaps even do his job of investigating the world.
Jep's journey takes him and us around Rome, to sightsee the usual fountains and museums, but also a nouveau plastic-surgery emporium and an art installation about the passage of time (one of the film's few genuinely deeply felt moments). Sorrentino works up satire in the party scenes and the like. Though, after initiating a very funny parody of Mother Teresa in a 103-year-old candidate for sainthood (Sonia Gessner), the director and his co-writer Umberto Contarello pump the brakes and suggest that she may well be as holier-than-thou as her supporters claim.
Ultimately, this 142-minute meander makes three points: Rome has drifted into declasse debauchery but still clings to the glory of its heritage; modern life for the elite has functionally become an empty existence of talking about nothing; and only true beauty, great beauty, means anything.
Young beauty in the forms of his first lady love, his novel and bygone Roma is what nostalgically haunts and persistently eludes the latter-day Jep and, by extension, the director for whom he's a Felliniesque stand-in.
Unfortunately, "The Great Beauty" is its own object lesson in the inability to recapture lightning in a bottle. On its own merits, Sorrentino's film ain't half-bad, but it's no Fellini picture.
Not MPAA rated. Two hours, 22 minutes.