The film begins in Rome at the splashy, bacchanal 65th birthday party of the dapper Jep Gambardella. Calling the event extravagant would be an understatement.
Gambardella is a celebrity socialite. He spends most of his afternoons laying around in a hammock, drinking, staring at the colosseum from his terrace. Killing time until the party-wild evenings. Jep lives a comfortable, carefree, decadent life.
Sometimes he thinks about a coastal summer romance from his youth - shown with Jep laying in bed and watching blue waves move across the ceiling, and also in brief flashbacks.
Forty years ago Jep wrote an acclaimed novel, inspired by that intense romance. He has not written a novel since, and now works as a high society journalist. In one scene Jep reviews a performance art show where the artist sprints and head-butts a stone wall.
The glitterati Jep surrounds himself with are the kind of people who wait in line with each other to get Botox injections, as nonchalant as if they're waiting to buy movie tickets. As one woman tells the man injecting her, "Just got back from India. I had amazing dysentery. Come to my divorce party, I'll have burlesque dancers there." When Jep and his friends get together they talk about subjects such as Marxism, collectivism, misanthropy, and defeatism.
Jep refuses to acknowledge any disagreeable aspect of life. At one of his regular dinner parties a friend tries to tell him about her son, who is experiencing mental health issues. Jep immediately dismisses the subject by recommending a psychiatrist, and then starts to talk about the salad.
In one scene Jep shops with his girlfriend for a funeral dress. They are in a patronizing store where the entire selection of dresses, displayed on the walls, can be counted off on your fingers. During this scene Jep explains the rules for how one must conduct themselves at a funeral, which he sees as a social event. The behaviours he describes equate to calculated self promotion.
So with these changes in Jep's life the director is basically trying to show that Jep is becoming more disillusioned with his frivolous lifestyle? That at the end of the film he is a more rounded person? That instead of numbing himself at endless decadent parties, Jep is forced to confront deeper aspects of life: hurt, love, death? Well, Jep was a despicable person at the start of the film. And in the end he is the same; a narcissistic, flippant man. His friends are shallow, materialistic, and conceited.
At one of his parties Jep tells the person he sits beside that the dance trains at their parties are the best in Rome. The next shot is of Jep drunkenly leading one of the trains. And then Jep is sitting next to his housekeeper, disillusioned, lamenting about how his life is nothing. Well how noble and sincere, you sanctimonious piece of shit.
The film is gorgeously shot, and the music is sublime. The opening scene contains choral music so transcendent it is unearthly. And then we're blasted into an aural storm of ecstatic club beats. And there is also the devastating pastorale composition, combining the music of Arvo Pärt with a choir rendition of Robert Burn's beautiful poem My Heart's in the Highlands, which mourns the narrator's lost youth in the Highlands.
"The Great Beauty" is insipid, meandering, and unnecessarily long. The title is appropriate to the material, as "The Great Beauty" is totally self-righteous. At the heart of this movie (or where a heart should be) is a group of terrible human beings.