In the amusing opening scene of “Youth,” Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s English-speaking movie, an embarrassed representative of the British monarchy (Alex Macqueen) meets with the acclaimed composer and conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) to tell him that the Queen has asked him to conduct a performance of one of his famous vocal works for the birthday celebration of her husband, Prince Phillip. Ballinger, moreover, will be knighted on this occasion. It seems like an offer that cannot be refused, but Ballinger says no.
“Why?” asks the emissary, clearly horrified at the idea of returning to Her Majesty with this answer. “Personal reasons,” Ballinger answers. But, the emissary insists, the famous soprano Sumi Jo will be performing the music; if Ballinger would prefer someone else, that can be arranged. Ballinger, however, still refuses, insisting that he has retired and restating those “personal reasons,” whose precise nature will be revealed to us later in the movie. The royal messenger departs, clearly mortified by what awaits him back at Buckingham Palace.
The work Ballinger is asked to conduct is called “Simple Songs,” which is ironic, given that simplicity is not the foremost quality of Sorrentino’s recent work. He directed the bizarre “This Must Be the Place” – the story of another retired musician, a rock singer played by Sean Penn, who sets out in full Goth regalia to search for the Nazi who abused his Holocaust-survivor father. Then Sorrentino won an Oscar for “The Great Beauty,” which alluded directly to two of Federico Fellini’s films, “La Dolce Vita” and “Roma.” Now, in “Youth,” he chooses as his setting a spa for the very rich in the Alps, where we encounter a gallery of showy, grotesque characters, including Italy’s vacationing beauty queen (Madalina Ghenea) as well as an American film director, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). The latter is there with a group of young screenwriters and has no idea what his next movie will be about; he does know that he wants this to be the masterpiece that sums up his oeuvre. And so we cannot help but think of Fellini’s “8½,” which was also set in a spa.
Ballinger and Boyle are old friends; once they were even embroiled in certain romantic intrigues, but with time, these have lost their sting. We also meet Lena (Rachel Weisz), Ballinger’s daughter, who finds solace in the arms of a surprising love interest after being left by her husband (Ed Stoppard) for pop singer Paloma Faith (played by none other than British pop singer Paloma Faith). There’s also a young movie star, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who has come to the spa to work on his truly challenging new role (whose historical context is something of a link to “This Must Be the Place”), and an aging film actress, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), who comes to visit because Boyle wants to cast her for his new production.
Catalog of themes
“Youth” is a cinematic showcase made up of scenes that are all designed to make us say “wow!” But is there any deeper experience in store for us? I’ve seen the movie twice so far, first at the recent Cannes Film Festival, where it failed to pick up any prizes, and again now, before its release at local theaters. I found it more engrossing the second time around; you almost can’t help but be pulled in, and the conclusion is so thrilling that you end up feeling moved even if certain bits along the way left you cold. But is “Youth” more than the sum of its parts?
Yes and no. The movie offers a catalog of serious themes – youth and old age, fidelity and betrayal, artistic commitment and its violation – but does it have anything deep to say about them? Or does it only prance around them, a kind of cinematic romp tinged with arrogance and derivative mannerisms?
I’m sure that many will find “Youth” a profound work and discuss its ideas at length. But to me, it lacks the kind of introspection that might have raised it to a higher level. In this, “Youth” is profoundly unlike “8½,” in which Fellini seemed to share the dilemmas of his hero, a film director unsure about his next film and unable to gauge the seriousness of his own plans. This dimension of the movie deepened its aesthetic validity, and it is something that Sorrentino’s film does not have.
If you regard “Youth” as a splashy entertainment product rather than as an artwork of substance, there is much to enjoy. It is deftly made, has several excellent scenes, and above all, sports the performances of Caine, Keitel and Dano. In Ballinger Caine has his most significant role in years, and his performance marks a new peak in a long and busy career. Keitel’s part is more limited, but he is skillful and precise in it. It’s nice to see this talented actor, who occasionally seems a bit forgotten, once again playing a meatier role.
Dano, meanwhile, once again proves himself to be a unique and gifted actor. He remains oddly unknown for someone who has appeared in many fine films, such as “There Will Be Blood,” “Looper,” “Prisoners” and “Love & Mercy.” It is time to include him prominently among the best young actors of his generation (he can now be seen playing Pierre Bezukhov in the British television production of “War and Peace”).
Jane Fonda has one scene (and a short epilogue) in “Youth.” Some might consider her performance bold, since it emphasizes her age and even gives it a grotesque, cruel appearance. But the performance is a spectacle inside the bigger spectacle of the movie, though we can still detect Fonda’s skill through the ostentation. The landscapes are gorgeous, which contributes to the overall enjoyment, and in some of the best scenes we see Ballinger heading out to nature to conduct the bells hanging on the necks of the grazing cattle, proving once again that there is no enduring beauty like that of a Swiss cow.
There are several major problems with “Youth.” What it has to say about youth, maturity and old age remains unclear. (When the doctor at the spa tells Ballinger that youth awaits him outside, what exactly does that mean? That age is only a state of mind?) At times the movie seems manipulative (Ballinger’s trip to Venice makes for an effective scene, but does the shock involved contribute to the movie? And is the transformation he undergoes supported well enough in the writing?). Also, Sorrentino’s attempt to make it all seem both real and imaginary, almost surreal, seems forced at times. This English-speaking film, set in a wealthy cosmopolitan environment, also makes a clear effort to explore the Italian film tradition (represented, in Sorrentino’s two most recent works, by Fellini), but that does not seem to add up into a significant statement, either.
“Youth,” therefore, mainly offers us an enjoyable opportunity to be caught up in a certain kind of reality, and the pleasure it provides is of the touristy kind that leaves little lasting trace. Such experiences do linger in the mind, but only temporarily – which is perhaps the most significant way in which Sorrentino’s film engages with its own central themes.