Being an amateur film critic, or any other kind of film critic probably, is having to make snap judgements that you’re not always ready to make. Usually I’m pretty confident with my calls but every once in a while something comes along which I really don’t know what to do with. Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty was one of those films. That film, which was about a larger than life character’s journey through the Roman upper-class and his ultimate crisis of purpose was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of that year but I wasn’t quite feeling it. That it was a “good” movie was self-evident, it was energetic, well crafted, often fascinating, and certainly worthy of any good cinephille’s time but it was also a movie that boldly invoked the Italian giants of old like Fellini and Antonioni without ever escaping from their shadows. What’s more I wasn’t sure what ultimate truth the movie was going for. It seemed like a movie that wanted to be about everything and it consequently ended up being about nothing… or maybe there was something there and I just wasn’t grasping it on first viewing. Either way I was excited to see Sorrentino’s follow-up film, Youth, an English language production starring a number of Hollywood talents from yesterday and today.
At the center of this film is another larger than life figure in his twilight years, this time a famous British composer named Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) who is staying at a luxury spa/resort in the Swiss Alps. Ballinger has retired from composing and conducting, in part because his wife is no longer with him and he considered her singing voice to be a key component of his music, though he still gets many offers to come out of retirement, most recently from an emissary for the Queen of England (Alex Macqueen) who is desperate to talk him out of retirement for a Royal event. Ballinger is joined at this resort by a long-time friend of his, a well-respected film director from the New Hollywood era named Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) who is retreating with a group of screenwriters in order to write his next film. He’s also joined by his daughter Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz) who doubles as his business manager and is going through something of a personal crisis because she’s recently learned that her husband is leaving her for another woman. He’s also formed something of a friendship with a younger actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who’s come to be sort of haunted by the success of a lame Hollywood franchise blockbuster he starred in for a paycheck.
Given that he’s now made two straight movies about legendary creative figures in their twilight years looking back on their lives and contemplating what it all means, you would think that Paolo Sorrentino would himself be a veteran filmmaker contemplating a long legacy but while he does have a handful of well-respected films he’s hardly a legend at this point in his career. In fact, he’s only 45, which is fairly young in director-years. He’s younger than Quentin Tarantino, he’s younger than Wes Anderson, he’s younger than Darren Aronofsky, he’s even younger than Spike Jonze… so why does he have this fixation on aging and legacy? If there’s one overwhelming reservation I have about both this film and The Great Beauty it’s that I feel like they would have a lot more resonance if they were coming at the tail end of the career of an actual veteran like Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, or Francis Ford Coppola. But perhaps it’s more than a little unfair to demand that a film make perfect sense within the biography of its maker and I feel like Youth, which as the title would imply is much more focused on themes of aging, handles this mode better than its predecessor.
Do not let the fact that this movie is in English and features a marketable celebrity cast fool you into thinking that this is a Hollywood prestige film of the Miramax variety; this is a Euro-arthouse movie through and through. Stylistically, the movie picks up right where The Great Beauty left off. Sorrentino doesn’t really do naturalism, at least not in these movies, and sets them in a sort of heightened reality inhabited by wealthy intellectuals. These characters tend to speak in rather lofty terms and the movie also isn’t afraid to go off topic occasionally to show some of the more unusual aspects of this resort’s decadence like a rotating stage where rock bands occasionally perform or some of its more colorful guests like an obese Latino man with a giant Karl Marx tattoo on his back. I’d be lying if I said I could explain the meaning behind every one of the films digressions but for the most part I think they add a lot of flavor to the movie and make it distinctive although occasionally it does maybe go a little too far with its weirdness (like the appearance of someone who’s looking a lot like a certain infamous Austrian).
At the center of the film is Michael Caine, an actor who earned his place in the pantheon a long time ago but who’s often relegated to supporting roles in his old age. Youth is the best showcase of his skills in a while. Caine has never really been the kind of actor who disappears into a role and he doesn’t do that here either but he definitely brings his A-game just the same to a role that I’m assuming was written specifically for him. Rachel Weitz also gives a strong, somewhat understated performance and while I don’t necessarily like Paul Dano as an actor he does make a nice quirky presence here, and Jane Fonda also makes a memorable appearance late in the movie playing a larger than life character in a larger than life fashion. The actor that really stood out to me though was probably Harvey Keitel, a great actor who is all too often treated like little more than “the guy you get when you can’t afford Robert De Niro” by Hollywood, which has resulted in him being in far too many movies where he’s forced to just shout at people and that’s made it easy for kind of overlook him. His work here is something of a revelation in part because he’s allowed to lighten up and be friends with Caine’s character and act like something of a yin to Caine’s yang even if there is something of a dark undercurrent below the surface of the character.
Of course (and I might start getting a little spoilery here) the big irony here is that the optimistic Harvey Keitel character ends up a lot worse off by the end of the film than the embittered and resigned Michael Caine character and I think that the reason for this is that Caine’s character is the one who finds a better way to cope with the modern world. Where Keitel’s character was unable to cope with a world where he wasn’t doing exactly what he had been doing his whole life, Caine’s character finds a way to continue engaging with the arts while also stepping aside and letting a new generation step into his old shoes. Of course the fact that this message is coming from an artist who is himself a relatively young man who is carrying on the tradition of old masters there may be a meta layer to all this… or maybe not… I’m not exactly sure yet. This is really a movie that might need another look before I can render final judgement but I will say that the movie I saw was very intriguing and definitely worth untangling.
***1/2 out of Four