Paolo Sorrentino’s last film, 2013’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner The Great Beauty, rightfully earned comparisons to Federico Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita. Both focused on men exhausted by the constant parties of Rome, but more importantly because Sorrentino was able to convey the breeziness, self-importance, and rich tones of Fellini. With his latest film Youth, Sorrentino once again dips his toe in the Fellini well, but with diminishing returns, creating a purgatory for lost Fellini characters that are waiting for the next step in their fleeting lives.
Taking place almost completely in a Swiss Alps spa, Youth focuses on a pair of friends that have known each other for decades. Michael Caine is Fred Ballinger, a beloved retired composer who declines the Queen of England’s invitation to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday. Ballinger’s music is so well-known, a young boy staying at the spa can often be heard practicing his “Simple Songs” on his violin. Ballinger refuses to compose music again, yet he will often sit alone and compose the world around him or add his own tones to his environment by sifting a candy wrapper when the mood strikes him.
His friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is a film director who is working on his latest – and likely final – film with a group of excited screenwriters. Despite his team’s constant brainstorming of bad ideas, Boyle’s film “Life’s Last Day” is still a work in progress, lacking an ending and very likely a muddled mess. Much like Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2, Boyle is worried about his legacy, how his most recent confused film will be perceived by his audience, and even envisions the woman of his past work when his stress becomes too much.
Youth thrives when these two different personalities sit around and discuss their pasts and their aged present. Sorrentino blatantly has his characters point out their polar opposite viewpoints, as Ballinger states he only understands music, since words and experience aren’t needed to understand it, whereas Boyle wears his heart on his sleeve, stating that emotions are all we have in this world. Their performances however makes this information known without being so overt about it. Caine is emotionally ready to burst, but bottling himself up to stay strong for his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and to fight off the insistence of the Queen’s emissary. Keitel is surprisingly soft, seemingly more invested in the relationships of his writers and of his friend than of his own. There’s a tenderness to Keitel’s role that has occasionally poked its head out in his past roles, but becomes the forefront of his portrayal of Boyle.
Youth is at its best when it’s about the friendship of these two men, rather than the meandering that occupies most of its run time. When Ballinger and Boyle are separated, Youth is reminiscent of Fellini’s more airy films that rely more on ambiance than plot, such as And the Ship Sails On or Amarcord. Guests mostly spend their time getting massages, monologuing about their lives or watching the evening’s entertainment – which includes everything from a bubble-blower to Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek. Sorrentino is far more interested in creating a melancholic atmosphere filled with unique characters rather than any sort of forward momentum or urgency, until the film’s final moment where it feels forced.
Some of these characters are enjoyable to spend time with, such as Paul Dano’s Jimmy Tree, a character as thinly veiled for Johnny Depp as Sean Penn was Robert Smith in Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place. Tree is preparing for his latest role, one he hopes will take the focus away from his most famous role as a talking robot, which leads to the film’s single greatest joke and surprise. Most of the other characters work only simply as a reminder of Ballinger and Boyle’s frustration at being too old for this shit. Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea) appears as an homage to the youth they’ve left behind and will never have again. After being shown as more than just a beautiful face, she proceeds to prance around naked in front of Ballinger and Boyle for no other reason for them to ogle. For one brief scene, Jane Fonda appears as Boyle’s favorite actress Brenda Morel, but her performance is so loud, over-the-top and tonally makes no sense in this film – other than to add some tension in the third act – that it’s almost shocking that Morel’s near-parody of aging Hollywood actresses is getting so much awards buzz.
Sorrentino can pull off both style and substance though, as we’ve seen with The Great Beauty, but in Youth story takes the back seat and suffers for it. His characters trudge through their vacations without much purpose. His characters are stuck in their own tedious malaise, but this only turns Youth into a visually beautiful, but empty search for… something that the film never quite earns. Everyone in Youth is lost, but worst of all is Sorrentino’s apparent confusion at what he’s going for as well.