2015, R, 118 min. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 18, 2015
Whither youth? Or should that be wither, youth? The dichotomy between these two poles of human life – youth and not-youth (let’s call it “advancing age”) – forms the crux of Italian director Sorrentino’s visually sumptuous and intellectually trenchant examination of two elder artists who reconnect at an extraordinarily extravagant Alpine spa.
Sorrentino’s film tackles the most important of all life’s questions with wit, wisdom, and no small amount of often-surreal humor. “Where did the time go, who were we, and who are we now?” Sorrentino previously helmed the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning The Great Beauty, with which Youth has much in common. Both films wrap themselves around the ridiculously melancholy fact that, rich or poor, artist or artisan, we’re all going to the same dark place. There’s an existential, borderline absurdist streak running through Youth, too; comparisons to Fellini’s 8½ aren’t that far-fetched.
Retired music composer Fred Ballinger (the quietly mesmerizing Caine) has returned to this heavenly Alpine spa for the past 20 years, often meeting there his lifelong friend, film director Mick Boyle (Keitel, back to brazen basics after all this time, and here doing his best work in ages). Now retired from his illustrious career, Fred is accompanied by his daughter and personal assistant Lena (Weisz), who is married to Mick’s son. Both men have their semi-comical torments. Fred is being pestered by a royal emissary (Macqueen), who is bound and determined to yank him out of retirement for one last engagement for the Queen of England (she desires a performance of the composer’s Philip Glass-ian “Simple Song #3”). Mick is struggling to finish the script for what he believes will be his final film. And then there’s Paul Dano as the actor Jimmy Tree, who frets that he’ll only ever be remembered for playing a pedestrian superhero role. Problems, everybody’s got ’em.
In lesser hands, Youth might as well have been titled Yawn, but Sorrentino, working with favored cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, renders these two old friends and their palatial surroundings anything but dull. Rumination and regret dominate the proceedings, but the exquisite visual splendor of the film is a character in its own right and lightens the tone just enough to keep it from tipping over into the maudlin. Certain perfect sequences stay with you: Fred, sitting alone in an alpine meadow, literally conducting a symphony of lulling cows and breeze-rippled grasses; a late-in-the-game verbal firefight between Mick and his once-upon-a-time ingénue Brenda, now a cynical Hollywood survivor played by an amazing Jane Fonda.
Add to that a haunting score by David Lang, several ethereal tracks from former Red House Painter Mark Kozelek, and a string of peripheral characters who are memorable in their own right, and Sorrentino’s film becomes much more than a meditation on the loss or folly of its title. Regrets, they’ve had a few, but at the end, simple songs turn out to be the most important songs of all.