Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino.
Written by: Paolo Sorrentino.
Starring: Michael Caine (Fred Ballinger), Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle), Rachel Weisz (Lena Ballinger), Paul Dano (Jimmy Tree), Jane Fonda (Brenda Morel), Mark Kozelek (Himself), Robert Seethaler (Luca Moroder), Alex Macqueen (Queen's Emissary), Luna Zimic Mijovic (Young Masseuse), Paloma Faith (Herself).
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino doesn’t really do subtle in his films, which when his films are good (like Il Divo) are part of their great charm, and when they are not - The Great Beauty - can make them somewhat insufferable. Okay, so The Great Beauty won the Foreign Language Film Oscar, and has a lot of fans, so maybe I’m wrong on that one – but it felt to me like warmed over Fellini – La Dolce Vita with all the excess and none of the insight, that slowly devolved into scene and scene of the same damn thing. There was undeniable craft on display in The Great Beauty – great shots and energy – but to me, the whole thing was sound and fury signifying if not nothing, than at least not all that much. The same can be said of his latest film Youth – although this film works better, because the lead performance by Michael Caine grounds the whole endeavor in a recognizable human reality, which allows for Sorrentino’s flights of fancy to not derail the whole film (although, they do come close at several points). The film doesn’t add up to a lot – but at least this time, I enjoyed the ride.
Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, an eldery composer and former conductor of the Venice Orchestra, who had a long and successful career that brought him fame and money – although he does lament the fact that his so called “Simple Songs” are what he is best remembered for, apparently thinking they were silly trifles, not quite worthy of him. He is spending his summer at a Swiss retreat – where he used to come with his wife, and now has come with his daughter and personal assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his longtime friend Mick (Harvey Keitel) – a once great film director, who is working with a stable of young writers on what he believes will be his “testamanet” – the only film of his that will matter. Caine, with his hair slicked back and large glasses, has clearly been made up to look like Toni Servillo – Sorrentino’s usual leading man, but he makes the character his own. Fred is sad, haunted by secrets in his past, and is ultimately just waiting for death. Mick won’t let his career go, but Fred has long since given that up – he doesn’t even want to perform for the Queen, much to the chagrin of the smiling emissary she keeps sending to see him to try and change his mind.
If Caine is the morose center of Youth, Sorrentino surronds him with more than enough craziness to buoy the proceedings, and make things entertaining. Paul Dano is deadpan hilarious as a movie star staying at the resort preparing for a role he doesn’t much talk about. The ultimate punchline to Dano’s performance is awful – the worse thing in the movie really, as it comes from nowhere, and has no point, but everything else with Dano is quite amusing – especially his interaction with the newly crowned Miss Universe, who isn’t the bimbo he assumes she is. Weisz is an actress who always strike me as too self-conscious, and that’s mainly true here as well, but she does have one terrific monologue that represents the best work she has ever done. Keitel hasn’t had a role this good in years, and he clearly relishes the role that allows him to be a comedic counterpoint to Caine. He is stuck a few times pretty much reciting the theme of the movie (in a touching scene involving binocolurs where the explains the difference between being young and being old for example), and his ultimate end feels cheap and unearned, but for the most part he is terrific. And then there’s Jane Fonda, who shows up late in the film for what is essentially a one scene cameo, as an aging movie star and frequent collaborator of Mick’s, who lays out just what she, and Hollywood thinks of him. This is in no way a subtle performance – Fonda goes maniacally over-the-top in the scene, but she’s brilliant just the same. The movie, which does tend to focus on young, naked (or nearly so) female bodies a little too much (seriously, it gets downright creepy at times) could use more of Fonda.
Not to be outdone by his cast, Sorrentino throws pretty much every cinematic trick in the book on the screen, creating some moments of inspired brilliance (including a couple of great fantasy sequences – one involving Caine imagining a return to conducting that goes horribly wrong, and one a demented music video featuring Pamola Faith, playing herself and being an awful good sport about it, considering what is said about her) – and some moments that strike me as Sorrentino simply showing off. But whenever the film threatens to spin out of control, Caine is always there to ground it yet again. His ultimate secrets are not that interesting, nor is his inevitable “redemption” – but along the way, Caine does some of the best work he has done in years. He pretty much saves the movie from itself.