Neither complete misfire nor triumphant return to form, Francis Ford Coppola's "Tetro" works as a competent family drama right up until the messy final act. If a first-time filmmaker had directed this stylish black-and-white-and-sometimes-color melodrama, it might gain some notice for suggesting great things to come. Instead, on its own terms, the movie is only a mildly interesting entry in Coppola's thirty-plus years of work.
At the same time, the plot resonates in context. Based around the troubles of an Italian-American family living in Argentina, "Tetro" stars Vincent Gallo as the titular character, a wannabe writer estranged from his family and living aimlessly with his supportive wife (Maribel Verdu). In the first scene, Tetro -- whose real name is Angelo Tetrocini -- gets an unwanted visit from his eager young sibling, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a navy reject interested in reconnecting with his black sheep brother. Bennie desperately probes Tetro to share details about their family. Tetro, however, feeling responsibility for the death of his mother in a car crash and resentment for the apathy of his famous composer father, refuses to open up.
When Bennie discovers that Tetro has privately written a play about their family history, he decides to try finishing it. Tetro protests, of course, based on his closeness to the material. As the brothers continue to battle over the future of the project (and their relationship), the plot arrives at a twist that's both strained and completely unnecessary, considering the solid storytelling preceding it. The creative fire shared by brothers and father alike also provide an easy entry point for understanding the movie's autobiographical traits. The Coppola family's multi-generational big screen accomplishments, coupled with their Italian heritage, obviously parallel the set up on a rudimentary level. "Nothing in the story happened, but everything is true," Coppola claimed during a Q&A following the first screening at Cannes' Directors Fortnight sidebar.
But there's more to it than that: The dialogue contains frequent insights into the way the filmmaker, now working on miniscule budgets and relying on self-distribution, feels about his sense of responsibility to his movies. "How do you walk away from your work?" Bennie asks Tetro. "Doesn't it follow you?" Clearly, it does: Coppola hints at the dissatisfaction he felt over taking too many studio gigs when Tetro's wife nimbly breaks down his ubiquitous rage. "He's like a genius without that many accomplishments," she says.
An autobiographical reading of "Tetro" certainly has merits, but won't change the movie's fairly average appeal. Gorgeous, high contrast imagery and exquisite mise-en-scene show that Coppola can still establish a distinctive mood (the contributions of his longtime editor, the legendary Walter Murch, also come in handy). Ironic for a feature about writing, the trouble lies with the trajectory of the screenplay (his first since "The Conversation," a Palme d'Or winner in 1974), which uses basic contrivances shared by many family dramas. A few mildly appealing cinematic flourishes occasionally elevate the experience, but the central problem with "Tetro" comes from the assumption that the final play has real aesthetic merits. The result is that this story of a vanity project ultimately becomes one.