“I don’t want to read any more of it, write any more of it, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore,” said the novelist Philip Roth in 2012, as he announced his retirement from literature. “I’m tired of all that work. I’m in a different stage of my life.”
So it is with Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), the octogenarian protagonist of Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth.” Much like the actor who plays him, Fred is considered a national treasure in his native U.K., following an illustrious career as a composer and conductor. His most famous work, “Simple Songs,” is so ubiquitous it’s become a staple practice piece for beginner musicians.
But you won’t hear Fred playing it any more. So staunch is his commitment to retirement that even an entreaty from Queen Elizabeth II to conduct one final performance of the piece for Prince Philip’s birthday can’t tempt him to pick up the baton again.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||124 minutes|
|Language||English, Italian, Spanish, Swiss German|
“Youth” is set at a luxurious spa resort in the Swiss Alps, where Fred spends his days reading The Guardian, getting massages and taking strolls with his lifelong buddy, filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). The latter has yet to abandon his muse: He’s currently working with a group of young screenwriters to finish the script for his next picture, which he describes — without a trace of irony — as his personal “testament.” Tellingly, he can’t seem to decide on an ending.
While Sorrentino’s early films were dark and viciously satirical, he’s become more generous recently. Like 2011’s “This Must Be the Place,” his first English-language feature, and 2013’s “The Great Beauty,” “Youth” is an unapologetically sentimental movie. Its characters are prone to reminiscence, weighed down by past mistakes and the knowledge that their best years are now well behind them.
The film’s spa setting acts as a microcosm of the entire span of human life — or, at least, life as those in the highest echelons of society get to experience it. The guests range from nubile youngsters to old folks in electric wheelchairs, and include Fred’s daughter Rena (Rachel Weisz), A-list Hollywood star Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a Tibetan monk, the latest Miss Universe, and an obese soccer player who’s clearly modeled on Diego Maradona.
This varied cast provides a continual source of distraction for Sorrentino, which cuts both ways. He’s a very sensual filmmaker, and not just in the erotic sense: He often seems to include scenes less because they advance his story or themes, but simply because they look and feel so good.
“Youth” is a vivid patchwork, full of digressions, impressionistic touches and musical interludes. There are some glorious tangents: Jimmy shuffling around the hotel dressed as Hitler; a topless Maradona playing footsie with a tennis ball; Fred conducting a field of cowbells in an imaginary symphony.
Yet the scattershot approach to storytelling doesn’t work as well as it did in “The Great Beauty,” which benefitted from being located within a sharply defined milieu. Sorrentino was at home depicting the excesses of Rome’s upper crust, but the reality of “Youth” feels less lived-in, and rather less cohesive.
I missed the acidity of Sorrentino’s previous film, too. His writing is broader this time around, imbued with a sincerity and big-heartedness that sometimes verges into mawkishness. This is a movie that sees nothing wrong with putting words of deep wisdom in the mouths of walk-on characters, or letting emotive music cues do the heavy lifting.
There’s much to like about “Youth”: It’s charming and funny, with some strong performances from the ensemble cast. Yet Sorrentino’s eagerness to elicit swoons from the audience can feel a bit too calculated at times. He’s a gifted and original filmmaker: it would be a shame if he morphed into the art cinema version of Baz Luhrmann.
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