CANNES – Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino has already dipped his toe into the familiar genre of characters of a certain age reminiscing about the good old days with 2013's “The Great Beauty.” He even won an Oscar for it. Two years later he returns to the Cannes Film Festival with “Youth,” a follow-up that stands besides “Great Beauty” thematically while also presenting a decidedly different point of view.
“Youth” starts off with The Retrosettes Sister Band performing a cover of “You Got the Love,” interpreted in a retro style and a twist on the old adage “everything old is new again.” In this case, everything new is old again, a theme that may or may not apply to the central characters in Sorrentino”s cinematic opera.
The movie centers on Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a legendary British composer and conductor, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a famous American film director. Friends for 60 years, the duo often end up spending their summers together in an elegant resort in the Swiss Alps. They both are quietly aware, however, that these excursions will soon be coming to an end.
The secluded hotel and spa is a destination for the rich and famous looking to relax and get away from it all. There is an Italian Opera singer who is so large he can barely breathe after going for a lap in the pool. There is the Hollywood actor (Paul Dano) who is researching a role, but can't escape being constantly reminded of his last favorite work. And yes, even the reigning Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) stops by to embarrass her fellow guests for assuming she doesn't have any semblance of a brain. All intriguing characters, but in many ways they mostly serve to inform Fred and Mick's journeys, each man dealing with problems of his own, which offer no clear solutions.
Fred is being pressured by an Emissary for the Queen of England (Alex Macqueen) to perform his signature composition at a concert for Prince Phillip, but much to her majesty's disappointment, continues to turn them down. Mick has brought along four thirtysomething screenwriters to help him finish the script for his next picture, a drama he expects will reunite him with legendary actress Brenda Morel (a glorious Jane Fonda), who he discovered decades ago.
Each of their worlds is thrown for a loop when Fred's daughter Leda (Rachel Weisz) is dumped by her husband, who – surprise – also just happens to be Mick's son. You might expect this to cause conflict between the old friends, but it's the first of many moments where Sorrentino pointedly directs the truth. Mick chews out his son for being a [expletive] (he already has a new girlfriend) and for leaving Leda just because she's supposedly bad in bed. This is just one example of the sharp knife Sorrentino provides his characters to poke each other with. The resort almost acts as a cathartic refuge where the guests drop their normally polite demeanors and let their true feelings bluntly fly.
Sorrentino's visual talents and operatic tendencies also transform a scenario that could be prime Working Title material into a true piece of art. Each frame seems to tell a story. The movie may be almost two hours, but Sorrentino insists that not one moment is wasted. What's even more masterful about his work here is how he builds Mick and Fred's emotional journeys without it coming across as manipulative or predictable. There are many moments of true surprise in “Youth” and that's not what many would expect in a movie about two eighty-something men in deep reflection.
Michael Caine, still looking spry at the grand old age of 82, gives a performance that ranks up there among the best of his distinguished career. In different hands Fred could have an aura of melancholy around him. Caine has no interest in giving Fred a pity party and that makes his reaction to a key dramatic moment towards the end of the film strikingly poignant.