Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino | 124 min | ▲▲▲△△
Sorrentino’s last film, the sumptuous Italian drama The Great Beauty, was something to see (it had everything from orgies to a giraffe) but a little hard to care about. It featured Toni Servillo as a 65-year-old writer unable to come to terms with the passage of time as he slouches through decadent, delightful Rome. It was so visually overstuffed it lost touch with the character. But credit to the filmmaker for continuing to cleave to a thematic continuity in his movies—age and artistry. This Must Be The Place from 2011 was about a senior rock star (Sean Penn made up like Robert Smith) taking stock of his family’s past and his own legacy.
And now, Youth.
Michael Caine is Fred Ballinger, a retired composer and conductor spending some time at a luxurious Swiss mountain spa. He’s joined by his old friend, a filmmaker, Mick, played with patented introversion by Harvey Keitel. They wander around, getting massaged, talking about the failures in their work, their loves, and their bladders, all against the stunning backdrop of the springtime Alps. They mix with other denizens of this exclusive retreat, including an obese Maradona-esque football star (Roly Serrano), a Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), Fred’s heartbroken daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), and a matinee idol who resents his biggest role (Paul Dano). Eventually, Jane Fonda shows up as a raging diva who’s set to star in Mick’s next project.
Sorrentino’s knack is visual tableau, and there’s no doubt he speaks a wonderful cinematic language, but his material can also be unbearably pretentious. This is the kind of film that threatens to tip into broad comedy every second moment, and you kind of wish it would. That’s not to say there isn’t a little intentional humour here—Fred and Mick like to take bets on a whether a couple they eat dinner with will speak through their meal—but it’s so terminally self-serious, you wish Peter Sellers would time travel from 1966 and show up as a ridiculous French-accented inspector looking for a stolen diamond. Or, at the very least, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon could stop by for a bite.
It’s not boring, nor prudish about the human experience, and the performances are good, with Caine especially effective as the heart of the thing. But see it, if you must, for the way Sorrentino constructs his sumptuous visuals and uses his locations, not for the sentimental drama of privileged regret.
Youth opens on Friday, January 15, in Halifax