The last film that director Paolo Sorrentino delivered was the Oscar-winning ‘The Great Beauty‘, which liberally borrowed from Federico Fellini’s iconic ‘La dolce vita‘. For his follow-up, Sorrentino has made a movie about a pair of aging artists struggling though their latest works while stumbling around a spa and observing the absurdities of their world. So… yeah… it’s a riff on ‘8 ½‘.
You’ve kind of got to admire the chutzpah of the Italian filmmaker’s wiliness to rip off the most beloved films from one of the most unique and famous directors who ever lived. However, the law of diminishing returns continues to apply. ‘Youth’ is certainly no ‘8 ½’, but it’s an entertaining enough artsy-fartsy diversion, I suppose.
Michael Caine stars as Fred, a retired conductor/composer on vacation in a Swiss Spa who has received an invitation from the Queen to perform his most famous piece for Prince Philip’s birthday. Staying alongside him is his oldest friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), an American screenwriter struggling to finish his final masterwork with the help of some younger, sillier writers. The pair are joined by Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard) and his wife (Rachel Wesiz), who’s also Caine’s daughter. (Obviously, trouble emerges between that duo).
The film evolves as the pair of elder statesman wander around the strange yet beautiful estate observing the oddball characters populating the poolside. These folks include a movie star played by Paul Dano who’s annoyed by his robot blockbuster legacy, a Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) who likes to wander the halls nude, and of course precocious children and weird fat guys (because Sorrentino’s vision of the present is essentially the 1960s version of Surrealism).
First, the good news. As with all of Sorrentino’s films, the movie is absolutely beautiful to look at. The picturesque setting and strange faces are all lovingly studied through the director’s meticulously constructed Cinemascope frames. The performances are also rather strong. Caine and Keitel are a wonderful, unexpected central pairing. They work wonders playing old dogs with strange points of view developed through age, creating a nice sense of patter and humor through beaten-down eyes. Other supporting performances shine, including Dano’s delightfully pretentious actor, Weisz’s lost soul struggling to perpetually live in her father’s shadow, and Jane Fonda’s searing turn as bitter actress which is the stuff single-scene Oscar nominations are made of.
There’s certainly plenty to like in ‘Youth’. The movie is filled with wonderful little moments. Unfortunately, those isolated interesting moments never add up to a satisfying whole. What Sorrentino has created is essentially a rambling, wandering collection of scenes that alternate between surreal sketch comedy and frustratingly pat meditations on youth and aging. The filmmaker couldn’t seem to decide if he wanted to make a lark or a grand statement on life, and ended up with neither. The film works best in the comedic asides (such as an absolutely insane sequence in which Dano’s character decides to dress as Hitler for no particular reason) and falls apart whenever the filmmaker gets too serious in intent. No matter how pretty the pictures, it’s tough to take his ponderous statements on aging and life seriously. In fact, they can be nauseating.
It almost seems as though Sorrentino is aware of the thin nature of his serious themes, frequently poking fun at his own movie through some hilarious scenes of Keitel waxing faux intellectual about his own ponderous movie. It’s an attempt for the filmmaker to have his cake and eat it too, but one that never quite works. Sadly, the movie’s insights are as groan-worthy as those in the goof-off film within the film.
Despite some fine performances from talented actors and a parade of pretty pictures, the faux philosophical movie comes off as laughable in the worst possible way. The fact that it’s frequently laughable in good way certainly helps and at least makes ‘Youth’ a bearable bit of overwrought pretention. It’s a very watchable example of a director disappearing up his own ass, but that’s not the same thing as being a good movie.