Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Stars: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano
Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Paolo Sorrentino’s last film, Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (a title surely doubling as a career mission statement), was a punch-drunk carnival of opulence, skewering the moral hangover of excess consumption among a group of spoiled, bohemian pseudo-sophisticates. Youth continues in similar vein, but treads a little more carefully and quietly around its aging, more rueful pampered protagonists. The inaction takes place in a hermetic, luxury Swiss mountain spa, where two long-time, eighty-something friends, retired world-famous composer Fred Ballinger (Caine) and veteran filmmaker Mick Boyle (Keitel) are both holed up. As Fred shuns the world, even turning down a request to perform for the Queen of England, Mick toils away with a group of young acolytes to finish one last script and “testament”. In the background, a parade of eccentric fellow guests, including Paul Dano’s Depp-a-like disaffected superstar, a philosophical Miss Universe and a Fellini-esque gallery of spa guests stew in neon-red saunas or steam-filled pools.
While Caine, cheekily done up like Sorrentino regular the great Toni Servillo and giving his best lead performance in years, plays a legendary conductor, the true maestro and ringmaster here is Sorrentino. To adopt the tagline of an old lager commercial, Sorrentino isn’t a party planner but if he did organize them, they’d probably be the best parties in the world. Actually, scratch that: The Great Beauty and Youth pretty much are sumptuous cinematic shindigs, a series of lavish images – levitating Buddhist monks, an impromptu conducted cowbell symphony, a vertiginous mountaineering scene – shot from fiercely idiosyncratic angles, backed by and synchronized to dynamic music, the likes of which many other filmmakers would be fortunate to come up with once per movie.
If some will doubtless claim that such incessant show-stopping stalls real emotional depth, those on Youth’s operatic wavelength can tune into a delicate, heartfelt story beneath the virtuosity; one replete with the trials of aging and acceptance, giving up or keeping going and how art replenishes or sabotages us along the way. Rather than grant his old white men a free pass, the female characters – Fred’s neglected daughter Lena (Weisz) in a blistering monologue on her father’s shortcomings and Mick’s former muse, Hollywood diva Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda in a scenery-chomping cameo) – strip them emotionally naked. And in deference to the film’s title, all these characters, no matter their age, desperately seek out or rail against the one thing they can never reclaim. It’s a messy, heady, occasionally over-ripe brew, but with Sorrentino on this inspired form, one that never gets old.