The art of acting is fascinating and mysterious, even for the actors who practice it. Unfortunately, for many artists, acting is too fascinating, and they can't resist the temptation to over-analyze it and to make plays/films about it. Playwright Brandon Cole and actor-director John Turturro, creators of Illuminata, are the latest to succumb.
Turturro plays a dramatist, Tuccio, struggling to make his name in the Manhattan theater scene at the turn of the century. Tuccio uses the unexpected illness of an actor (played by Matthew Sussman) to convince the owners of a Manhattan theater to chance his play, Illuminata. Unfortunately, that is not only the movie's premise, but also most of the plot.
Like many of the European films Turturro pays homage to, Illuminata A) begins with exasperating slowness, then B) picks up and forces the audience to become involved with the characters, then C) loses the audience again with episodic scenes that are never clearly resolved, then D) wraps everything up with (as one character notes) "no ending." The turn-of-the-century setting makes for some gorgeous costumes and sets, but 1905 is not remote enough in time to serve any obvious purpose (except to excuse the dated subject matter).
The cast --- including Susan Sarandon, Turturro, and Turturro's wife Katherine Borowitz --- is absolutely first-rate, but mostly wasted. Only the ever-twitchy Christopher Walken is inspired --- playing a flaming, Wildean theater critic who savages all plays and all actors, except for those young male actors he allows to accommodate his "rigid bone". It's the same controlled-freak performance Walken always delivers, but it's great.
Like its predecessors in the play-about-a-play genre, Illuminata is full of incestuous, behind-the-scenes soap operas involving the actors, and there are plenty of clever one-liners about the meaning of acting. At one point, the cast even breaks into that artiest of Shakespeare plays, The Tempest (which inspired Derek Jarman to make a similarly self-indulgent film, back in 1979).
Both the play and the movie contain some very good love speeches, but not enough backstory or emotional involvement to support them. The result is suspiciously European (Smiles of a Summer Night, and other Bergman films, come to mind). Turturro loads the film with philosophical soliloquies with no preamble or depth, as if he were one of the European masters who can get away with such things. The film's aimless middle is filled with Felliniesque sexual burlesque. There's even an unexplained, overwrought, meaningless death scene of an undeveloped character (the actor played by Sussman) --- a hallmark of European art films.
If Illuminata were subtitled, it would probably get some four-star reviews. As it is, it will probably be dismissed as a waste of talent on a product that is all style, no substance. In the words of an old trouper (played by Ben Gazzara, another great actor wasted in this movie), making movies like this is "no profession for an adult."