Paolo Sorrentino took home an Oscar a couple of years ago for “The Great Beauty,” his Fellini-esque extravaganza about the excess of the Berlusconi era as seen through the eyes of a cynical gossip reporter, and he brings similar visual flair—if considerably less flamboyance—as well as continuing reverence for the great Italian director to the English-language “Youth.” But despite the gorgeous images and the presence of Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, doing what amounts to an engaging thespian soft-shoe routine, this reverie on coming to terms with growing old comes across as both pretentious and prosaic.
Caine is Fred Ballinger, a composer-conductor who’s retired after decades of professional success in London and Venice. He’s now ensconced at a magnificent Swiss spa, where he’s visited by an emissary from the queen (Alex MacQueen), bearing a request that he agree to lead a performance of his most popular work, “Simple Song #3,” at a special concert; he’ll also be knighted. But Fred declines the request for personal reasons that will be explained only much later, during one of the royal lackey’s periodic reappearances.
Fred has a close friend also spending time at the spa—Mick Boyle (Keitel), an aging film director working with a bunch of scruffy young aides on the script for what he believes will be the culmination of his career, though they can’t come up with a proper ending. The two spend a good deal of times taking dips in the spa swimming pool or long walks in the lush surrounding countryside, ruminating on the realities of aging and reminiscing about their long-lost loves; but there is a snag: Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard) is married to Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), but has announced that he’s leaving her for another woman (Paloma Faith). That in turn leads Lena to vent her anger over her father’s devotion to music over his family—which, among other things, led him to be unfaithful to his wedding vows.
Most of the film revolves around Ballinger and Boyle’s pasts—and possible futures. Fred can’t escape his obsession with music—he frequently toys with paper wrappers in tempo, and visits a boy elsewhere in the hotel practicing “Simple Song #3” on the violin—or the queen’s invitation. Mike, meanwhile, is equally focused on his script, until a visit from Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), the aging actress he was instrumental in making a star and now needs for the upcoming film, derails his plans. But others at the spa reinforce the themes connected with them. An obese man, once a world-renowned soccer player, slogs about the place, despite his bulk a mere shadow of his former self. And young American film star Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano)–who deplores that his one foray into “popular” entertainment, a movie in which he played a robot called “Mr. Q,” now defines him–has come to the spa on a mission to observe humanity in all its variety for his next, presumably more serious, role, but seems the eternal outsider, unable to connect with anyone or anything but on a superficial level.
It’s symptomatic of Sorrentino’s failure to inject depth into the film that Dano, one of the best young actors working today, gives one of his weakest performances here—studied and strained, it’s more a series of poses than an example of genuine character-building. Fonda is even worse: she’s supplied with one of those vituperative one-scene monologues that’s supposed to blow you away, and it’s so badly written (sounding, like much of the dialogue, as though it had been written in another language and then translated into English)—and delivered—that it’s almost embarrassing. (A brief second scene in which she’s featured is even worse.) Weisz is more successful with her single long harangue, but even she doesn’t find much nuance in her thinly-written character.
That leaves Caine and Keitel, who bring their natural charm to Fred and Mick, and the luscious settings, shot in creamy tones by Luca Bigazzi. (Equally lovely is Madalina Diana Ghenea, playing Miss Universe, who visits the spa and shows herself off, without any false modesty, to the old fellows—and also demonstrates that, contrary to expectations, she’s no dummy.) Almost as important a contribution to the picture is David Lang’s score, which has the unenviable duty to include Ballinger’s celebrated compositions as well as providing background music. One trusts that “Simple Song #3,” performed at the close (and well, with soprano Sumi Jo doing the vocals), is intended as an expert parody akin to Bernard Herrmann’s “Salammbo” aria from “Citizen Kane,” since it sounds very much like a mediocre imitation of Richard Strauss. Fred does dismiss it at one point as a distinctly minor work, so perhaps its insipidity is a joke. One can always hope!
During one of their conversations in “Youth,” Ballinger talks to Boyle about trying while Lena was growing up to create memories for her to cherish—an attempt that he suggests, based on their own struggle to recall even the most important moments in their lives, was doomed to fail. “Tremendous effort…with a modest result,” he concludes with regret. One might say the same of Sorrentino’s film.