By Patrick McGavin

A dark valentine to the follies of romantic optimism surrendering to blinding psychosis, “Reality” is the much-awaited, but disappointing follow-up of the gifted Italian director Matteo Garrone, whose brilliant underworld drama “Gomorra” took the 2008 Cannes Film Fest by storm.

The new work is in the vein of the popular “commedia all’Italiana” mode of frantic, often acerbic social comedies of the post-war Italian cinema, combined with the more polemical brand of documentary and satirical political exposes of the present.

Despite a visually arresting opening, the movie fails to sustain the bravura filmmaking with a detailed psychological realism, or penetrating social analysis, necessary to push the work into exciting dramatic or emotionally revealing register.

Anchored by a complex central performance from actor Aniello Arena, the movie plays like an Italian “King of Comedy,” except it lacks that pathos and blistering social critique that Scorsese and his collaborator Robert De Niro created in their serpentine and brittle creation.

The most interesting aspect of the film was disclosed following the premiere at Cannes Fest, namely that Arena was given a temporary release from a 20-year prison sentence to play the part. Serving time for a reported murder, he is set to be released next year. That strange and haunting detail accounts for Arena’s particularly sharp and knotty performance, marked by deep awareness of solitude and entrapment.

The Scorsese (and Coppola) connection is made explicit by the movie’s flamboyant and baroque opening, executed by Garrone in a sinuous and unbroken take, largely hand-held, of a colorful and spectacularly over the top wedding that introduces Arena’s Neopolitan fish store owner and family.

Given the clown name of Luciano, he’s got a classic look, a square, muscled body and open though hard lined face that is both suggestive and also furtive, even closed off. Even when he winces, you feel it.

Enlisted as a drag queen to spoof the wedding solemnity, he finds himself in a slightly awkward exchange with Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante), a local celebrity, due to his involvement on the Italian edition of “Big Brother.” Luciano shows a playful and provocative side, making fun of his own masculinity, for instance, sufficiently indicative of a wit and ease of playing different roles. He’s the father of two adorably cherubic girls and slightly older son with his wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli).

Garrone also draws some small, lovely moments from Luciano’s colorful and quarrelsome extended family. Working again with his great cinematographer Marco Onarato, Garrone is especially good, through his bold depiction of color, his off-center framing and exaggerated rhythms, at capturing the manic desperation of Napoli’ lower middle class.

The family’s socio-economic aspirations include their own brand of treachery and amoral behavior, evidenced by the local con involving a “robot kitchenette,” Luciana and Maria pull off against the unsuspecting locals in an effort to supplement their income and maintain a more comfortable existence.

Enzo, the local TV celebrity, has his own mantra, “Never give up.” Like Jerry Lewis’ talk show host in “The King of Comedy,” Enzo is the covetous and self-made star Luciano desperately hopes to duplicate. After Enzo helps Luciano secure an audition for the reality show at a local shopping mall, Luciano and his family are whisked to Rome’s legendary Cinecitta Studios for an audience with the show’s producers.

Having done an extended personal interview, Luciano returns home convinced his participation on the show is inevitable.

Slowly, his ambition gives way to startling obsession and finally to delusion. Back in Naples, Luciano reveals himself to be a man unchecked by any sense of balance or foresight, wholly consumed by pursuing his comic dream. He remains inventive and unabashed, illustrated by his final encounter with Enzo, when he finds a very novel way to interact with his personal idol at a garish nightclub.

Though Maria, friends and relatives are alarmed by his increasingly impulsive and self-defeating actions, like giving away most of the family’s possessions and selling the business, Luciano remains steadfast in the absoluteness of his private destiny. Garrone never condescends or ridicules his subject. Luciano’s brand of delusion is hard to dramatize, either emotionally or psychologically.

While the movie never fails to impress visually, like a majestic moment of one of the girls barreling down a waterslide, “Reality” becomes too repetitive and one-note to give the material any jolt of excitement—or poignant satire. It’s like watching an addict fall prey to their demons, which makes the experience inevitable, off-putting and anti-dramatic.

Fortunately, Garrone recovers from the film’s sluggish middle sections with a rousing and fascinating finale, though it’s one that leaves more questions than answers. The genie is not going back in the bottle, and decent end never quite makes up for an incomplete and insufficiently realized conceit.