Paolo Sorrentino‘s Youth is a picturesque bore. A wandering meditation on the lives of those who’ve already lived it, Youth begs questions about family and legacy and the ugliness involved with both. Not unlike Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, Youth features handsome camerawork and lively, thoughtful performances but is ultimately unable to plant much reason for remembering it once it’s past or passing a recommendation along.
The film plays out in a far-flung Swiss spa where Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a decorated, though retired, orchestra conductor is on a retreat with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and life-long friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), there working on his long-gestated cinematic testament, “Life’s Last Day.” Also putting their feet up at this sightly Alps locale is Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea) and Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a popular actor trying to shed his association with a popular blockbuster character. Dano’s Jimmy Tree is a mouthpiece for Sorrento when he claims, “Levity too is a perversion.”
While Sorrentino barely tries to veil his thesis that “robot movies” and the like are the equivalent of buttered popcorn and poo-flavored jellybeans to the importance kind of filmmaking that he involves himself in, the statement was made much more concisely and much more potently in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. Instead of honing in on one grand unifying theme, Youth kind of wanders hither and thither, touching on anything from love to the total absence of it, the talented vs. the talentless, beauty and obesity, youth and old-age and very little in terms of moderation. So many binaries are commented on without Sorrentino really making a mark on anything.
But beneath the jumbled tactics of Sorrentino’s own testament thrives a handful of lovely performances. As Ballinger, Michael Caine gets a proper frontman role and really breathes live into the aging, somewhat-complex character. However on the page, I don’t know how much Ballinger works, particularly his relationship with his daughter. There is supposed to be tension between them made of years of Ballinger denying his daughter something as simple as a loving touch but there’s no evidence from the performances that these two do not share a deep bond. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. One of many examples where stars in Youth just don’t quite seem to align as they should.
And though Weisz and Caine conjure crisp chemistry as the father-daughter duo, there’s an inherent disconnect between the way that they act around one another and their professed distance from each other that I couldn’t wrap my head around. So too must Harvey Keitel, who hasn’t had an opportunity to be this good in years, contend with a character whose actions don’t seem to necessarily match up with everything else we know about him. There’s a series of late stage decision that should be tragic but come of instead as somewhat head-scratching. As if Sorrentino accidentally Keyser Sözed himself.
There’s a plenitude of glorious images that Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi cull from the sharp peaks of the Alps and the soft snow that caps them but behind the arresting imagery and notable performances, Youth lacks a beating heart that resonates with any particular kind of meaning. Like a MC who steps up to a freestyle mic, confident that they want to spit rhymes that matter, rhymes that strike to the deepest nerve of the soul, and instead ends up rambling about his mom’s spaghetti.
CONCLUSION: Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Youth’ is a picture convinced that it says more than it does, heavy on mood, bewitching cinematography and acting prowess and light on consistency of character and narrative breadth.