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.