Considering its talent, lush beauty, and quietly simmering passion, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth leaves a rather bland aftertaste. The artful film aims to be an exercise on aging and the diminishing currency of self-worth over time. Yet, its ideas are insinuated and underexplored, neither intriguing nor enlightening. Save for a pair of profound moments, don’t be surprised if your mind frequently wanders off during Youth, despite all its weighty subjects arbitrarily hammered on screen.
As last year’s Academy Award winner in the Best Foreign Language Film category (with the far superior The Great Beauty), Sorrentino treads familiar waters with his newest. Indeed, Jep Gambardella—the aging, ostentatious single-hit author of The Great Beauty—could very well be staying somewhere in the exquisite and expansive Swiss spa in which Youth is set. A glorified retreat for the rich and mostly famous, the spa’s indoor and outdoor grounds serve as a secluded hub for those in need of a break, inspiration, or possibly both. Michael Caine, who plays a famous composer/conductor named Fred Ballinger, leads the irrefutably wonderful cast. Fred spends his days reflecting on life, worrying about his bladder, and repeatedly turning down an offer from the Queen (delivered by her emissary) to conduct his infamous “Simple Songs” at a concert for personal reasons he doesn’t reveal immediately. His close friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is a celebrated Hollywood director in the process of making a new, epic-sounding movie. Moreover, he fathered a son who is later found out to be married to Fred’s sophisticated daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz, stealing every single scene she is in). There is also a mostly taciturn and quiet actor with an arrogant aura (the expressive Paul Dano), a Maradona-esque ex-footballer struggling with weight and health problems, and a beauty queen—a late entry to the film—with limited scenes designed to challenge snotty cynicism of men and awe the aging with her unspoiled beauty.
Another late entry in the film is Jane Fonda, playing a legendary Hollywood actress named Brenda Morel. Costumed, accessorized, and made up extravagantly for an instantly hard-hitting Norma Desmond effect, she appears in the film’s forceful third act to break the news to her long-time collaborator Mick that she is dropping out of his picture and signing a long contract with a TV project. She coolly adds to the exasperated Mick that TV is where the future is at, perhaps hoping in the depths of her proud mind to avoid or delay her eventual Desmond-like fate. Fonda’s appearance is all too brief, yet she pulls it off memorably, justifying the recent Oscar talk around her short performance. Still, the most interesting acting of Youth comes from Weisz as Fred’s sacrificing daughter and professional assistant, especially when she delivers a bitter, piercing monologue to her father about his past wrongdoings and identity crisis.
Luca Bigazzi—who also DP’ed the stunning The Great Beauty—once again delivers dazzling camerawork with Youth. The film’s dreamy sequences in particular (as conceptually ill-fitting as they are here) allow the cinematographer to stretch his muscles to the heights of his aforementioned work. Yet, while visuals viscerally elevated Sorrentino’s audacious Oscar-winning film, they strangely underscore the pettiness of this film’s dialogue. The film comes off as a pretty shell, one that looks like a million bucks but keeps even the most willing viewers at a safe distance.