In my last review (Brooklyn) I posed a question: Who says size matters? I was referencing a small film with a huge heart. Here in Youth, the latest opus from Paolo Sorrentino, we have a film on a grand scale, a big film but without a heart.
Sorrentino, as he did in his last film, The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), once again riffs on his favorite themes: Age and the Hollowness and Emptiness of Success.
Here, Michael Caine plays a retired composer and symphony conductor Fred Ballinger, and Harvey Keitel plays his best bud,
Mick Boyle, a famous Hollywood film director. They are set up in one of those elegant Swiss Alpine Hotels/Spas where you’re pampered beyond belief.
This particular time, Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) has arranged for the trip,
Lena: You’ll be getting the best of care. Sauna, Massage, and daily check ups by the doctors to get you back in shape.
Fred: At my age, getting into shape is a waste of time…
At this time, Lena is also in a relationship with Mick’s son Julian, who is about to walk out of the relationship. Fortunately for Lena, she’s already in a place that can help with depression as well as being good for one’s body.
So Mick and Fred spend their days walking through lush Alpine meadows,
taking cable cars up mountain sides, and reading the newspapers all while maintaining a running dialogue about getting old and the problems that come with ageing.
Mick is there with a gaggle of his screenwriters who are working hard to put the finishing touches on Mick’s last film which is to star Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). Also present is the male lead of Mick’s film, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) who is taking this retreat (far away from all of the distraction) to work on getting into character.
Early on Fred is approached by the Queen’s Emissary. That’s right – the Queen of England wants Fred Ballinger to conduct his classic piece (A Simple Song) in London, as a birthday present for her husband Phillip.
But despite the entreaties by the Emissary, Fred refuses.
And that readers is the basic framework of the film. Unfortunately, Sorrentino is caught up and insistent on filling the screen with some of the most compelling and beautiful imagery that one might ever see in the cinema.
And the story, which I will call the trees, is basically lost to the compositions of shot after shot of the beautiful settings, which I shall call the forest.
Breathtaking is probably an understatement.
But Mick and Fred have their secrets. Despite Mick’s statement – We are the best of friends, and as such we only tell each other the good things – which proves that Mick is indeed a good and great friend. Especially after Mick had told us earlier:
I must believe everything I hear. I need to in order to be able to make stuff up. He is as previously mentioned film director.
So we creep along. Sorrentino is in no rush. And despite bringing the film in at a manageable 118 minutes, the film plays long. But for every breathtaking shot there are other shots, which while they maybe beautifully composed, they don’t advance the story. Instead they get in the way of the story.
Sorrentino likes to show lots of skin too. But remember, this is a spa setting – and there’s a distinct difference between rich, young, and beautiful and what we also get which is simply old and and rich.
On occasion there are some meaningful ideas put forth – like when Mick is at a telescope with one of his young writers.
The two images represent how we deal with the future and the past. Mick might better at dispensing wisdom than he is in being honest with himself.
In this scene Mick has responding to a comment by Fred, He says, You talk about emotions. Emotions are all we have!
Then there’s the Brenda Morel character. When she shows up at the spa – she is going to give Mick an earful. He won’t be happy. He’s literally pushed to the very edge.
Here’s what I think – you’re going love what you see, but the characters aren’t likeable in the least. Paul Dano carries his actor in search of finding his method into the character he will portray, to an unexpected place.
Jane Fonda comes off as a diva and that’s exactly what she was supposed to be.
Sorrentino will trot out some grotesqueries for both your amusement and your shock. After all this is a health spa , so everyone will not be a Miss Universe. Watch for the grossly overweight former soccer star player.
But despite all that, Michael Caine, as well as Harvey Keitel, even at this late date in their careers can still please an audience. Keitel is now 32 years and 131 acting roles since his performance in Mean Streets (1973). Caine has been acting for 60 years and he has 160 credited roles that include Alfie (1966).
Three point seven five for Youth. It is worth seeing; just don’t expect to blown away by the story.