In Youth, writer/director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) specializes in long, atmospheric shots of majestic vistas, foregrounded by contemplative characters, who will eventually overcome their melancholy and come to realize the beauty of existence. Overwrought dialogue will be spoken, beatific smiles will ensue, with teardrops perched perilously over lower eyelids as string music swells. Youth is unapologetically melodramatic, and it almost works. Sorrentino hypnotizes with spectacular visuals, it’s only his own heavy-handed dialogue that breaks the spell.
Our story is set at a fabulous health spa in Switzerland, where all the towels are folded into the shape of swans and all the guests are aging celebrities looking for a shot at redemption. Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a famous conductor/composer who seems to have lost his will to compose, possibly even to live, and instead mopes around an extravagant resort gazing at his navel so hard it might burst into flames. At one point he sits in front of a meadow “conducting” the sounds of the cows. Zee life, she eez byootiful, no?
Also present is Ballinger’s old friend, Mick Boyle, played by Harvey Keitel, a filmmaker who has brought along four young protegés to help him write his “testament” to cinema. Ballinger and Boyle are classic opposites. Ballinger, vehemently retired, refuses to conduct his songs for the Queen, who has sent along an emissary to try to convince him (as queens do). Boyle, always the dreamer, is still convinced that his best work is yet ahead of him. “You know the difference between you and I?” Caine asks one day. “I never found the enjoyment in life.”
The two pals stroll around the grounds having deep talks — things they wish they’d done, women they wish they’d slept with — and gripe about their prostates, or sit silently in sun-dappled baths. That’s where they are one day when a buxom Miss Universe contestant (also staying at the hotel) strolls through their steam buck naked, to remind them of the good things in life. (This is the image from the first poster.) An attendant eventually interrupts their ogling with a phone call for Boyle. “Can’t it wait? Can’t you see we’re enjoying our last idyll of youth?” Boyle asks.
Two old men reflecting on the beauty of existence while ogling a huge-breasted naked lingerie model — is that not the most Italian image ever? Not a criticism, by the way, it’s actually the sillier stuff, the creep sexuality, that works in Youth. It’s when the characters start to get metaphysical that you might start rolling your eyes.
At one point, Keitel’s character takes the gondola to the top of a look out point. He has his young female protegé look through the telescope. “You see that? When you’re young, everything feels close. That’s the future. Now turn it around. This is how it is when you’re old.”
Also, “Emotions aren’t overrated. They’re all we’ve got!” And “I’ve come to find that some people are beautiful. Some are ugly. The ones in between are merely ‘cute.'”
Sheesh. Maybe try less hard? There’s a fine line between “thoughtful” and “shameless wonder pimp,” and at times Youth feels like a Eurovision Zach Braff.
Other guests at the hotel include: Paul Dano, a “serious actor” who has become famous for playing a robot in a cheesy blockbuster, much to his chagrin, and a morbidly obese former soccer star with a giant tattoo of Karl Marx on his back. The Spanish-speaking soccer hero (Youth‘s most interesting character and its closest thing to a non-white person) now walks with a cane, attended by his wife/assistant, the only hint of his former prowess his ability to juggle a tennis ball with his famous left foot. In this case, Sorrentino’s unforgettable visual, of a massive fat man kicking a tennis ball up in the air to himself in the shadow of an alpine vista, transcends the too-cute writing.
Sorrentino’s visual compositions work well, but his writing keeps trying to skip honest interaction and go straight to profound statement, with dialogue that sounds like it should be delivered while swooning backwards, back of hand placed dramatically against forehead. The thing about being profound is that it doesn’t usually come from people consciously attempting to be profound. Likewise, Youth would get to where it wants better if characters just talked, to each other, instead of sounding like they’re addressing posterity. It’s like being with a comedian when you can’t tell if she’s talking to you or trying out material.
Caine’s daughter, played by Rachel Weisz, is also staying at the hotel, where she becomes the object of affection for a Norwegian mountain climber. Later, her husband leaves her to run off with “Paloma Faith,” a pop star who was apparently playing herself. Asked why, the husband says “It’s painfully mundane, actually, she’s good in bed.”
Then there’s an entire Paloma Faith music video sequence, with Faith starring as a campy, hypersexualized, Spears/Minaj version of herself. That may have been hilarious to people who knew who Paloma Faith is, I’m not sure, I’ll tell you when I meet one. For me it was a lot like Youth as a whole, this strange, slightly saccharine Europop song that doesn’t quite translate.
Grade: Two and a Half Poems Too Beautiful To Share With A Cruel World.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.