Youth feels like the work of a talented director relaxing into a subject – in fact, a series of subjects – but not in an indulgent or lazy sense. It has a calm beauty in it.
Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a retired composer taking a break at a luxury Swiss sanatorium. His old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a much-admired director, is also at the retreat, accompanied by a team of youthful screenwriters collaborating on his next project, which frustratingly none of them can think of an ending for. Fred is described by his doctor as “apathetic”; he seems to accept the process of ageing more quietly than Mick, who still wants to produce art. Fred is retired, and will not compose again, even despite a visit from a royal emissary (Alex Macqueen) who tries his best to draw Fred out of retirement. The rest of the characters – and there are many – flit in and out of the narrative. Most prominently they include Rachel Weisz as Fred’s daughter Lena and Paul Dano as deep thinking but tormented Hollywood A-lister, Jimmy Tree.
Most obviously, the film ruminates on age – indeed, Fred and Mick spend time walking together talking about it – but it also meditates on emotion, communication and understanding. Fred and Mick are in some ways similar, but both have their own ways of thinking that may be flawed. Meanwhile, Jimmy watches the inhabitants of the film’s luxury resort setting (much as we do), and tries to understand them. Sorrentino allows the viewer to float through the resort, almost as if we were inhabitants ourselves, and to contemplate what it all means. Many of the supporting characters are enigmatic, uninhibited by backstory or exposition, and much like in real life, the background they provide is somehow integral to the whole.
The wonderfully talented cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, who has shot many of Sorrentino’s films, understands the way his director wants to tell his story; the two are in harmony throughout. On a simple visual level, the film is stunning to look at. The composition of shots throughout is not only beautiful, but meaningful. Witness, for example, the way numerous shots in water contort and contract our perceptions; or the way the camera focuses more and more closely on an increasingly heated conversation between Mike and one of his old stars (a terrifying Jane Fonda). In one subtly moving scene, Mike uses a telescope to illustrate to one of his young screenwriters how our perceptions change as we get older. It feels lazy to compare Sorrentino’s style to Fellini, because so many have done it before, but the comparison is apt, and complimentary.
As in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino uses music beautifully. Sometimes it enters scenes in the form of live music being performed at the retreat; at other times refrains we’ve heard before re-enter the narrative. The film’s conclusion features an Oscar-nominated piece of original music by David Lang, which helps bring the film to its rousing, overwhelming crescendo.
In the absence of Sorrentino’s regular leading man Toni Servillo, Michael Caine gives an excellent performance. He has said that he considers this the best performance of his career. That will be debated over time, but it is certainly one of his best. Opposite him, Keitel is also on top form, and the supporting cast, in particular Weisz and Dano, provide depth and texture to Sorrentino’s rich tapestry.
At first some of the dialogue feels a little forced, as if Sorrentino (who also wrote the film) wanted to cram every line with a meaningful little nugget. The script soon settles into itself, however, and there is some great writing in here. Only a recurring gag about Fred and Mike wondering what it would’ve been like to have slept with a mutual acquaintance from their past feels like a wrong note; though, to Sorrentino’s credit, even this seemingly throwaway detail is given a satisfactory conclusion. In general, the film balances drama, tragedy and comedy with deft precision; some of the cutaways and musical interludes are perfectly pitched. One mad nightmare sequence makes up for the fact that a certain cameo feels unnecessarily like stunt casting.
In the first act, the film feels a tad overstuffed, as if there are too many characters crammed in, but actually as the film meanders through its carefully constructed narrative, the supporting characters blend into something bizarrely beautiful. There are memorable moments throughout, from Lena’s heartbreaking single-take emotional outburst to Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) giving Jimmy an intellectual dressing down in the moonlight. Sorrentino’s screenplay is so well structured that, by the time we reach the final act, each piece seems to be playing its own small but invaluable part; reflecting the film’s own orchestral climax.
Does Sorrentino attempt to tackle too much in this film? Possibly, though I would rather see a director experimenting with too many ideas than scraping the barrel with too few. Youth is a rich and rewarding experience.