“You’re wasting time talking philosophy and big ideas!” says writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s avatar to his overly critical Greek chorus of sorts in YOUTH.
If you’ve experienced acclaimed director Paulo Sorentino’s Academy-Award-winning THE GREAT BEAUTY, you’ll know exactly what you’re in for with his follow-up feature, YOUTH. The art-house dramedy combines haughty, beguiling and transfixing imagery with a fairly straightforward narrative – one that’s just as sentimental as it is self-congratulatory. There’s a highly seductive quality to its sleek and saturated visual palette; however, it echoes with a slightly hollow ring.
World-renowned composer Fred Ballinger (Sir Michael Caine) has been visiting an artists spa in the Swiss Alps for years, even after his beloved wife died years prior. He’s pressured by the Queen’s emissary (Alex McQueen) to re-launch his most famous symphony, “Simple Songs.” But, for deeply personal reasons, it means too much for him to do so. His daughter/ assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) has arranged for a barrage of health treatments to reinvigorate her father. However, after her husband leaves her, she’s in need of the same rehab. Fred’s longtime friend filmmaker/ Sorrentino’s cinematic avatar Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is also staying at the resort as he’s readying his magnum opus for ball-busting leading lady Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). Also at the resort is Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an actor disillusioned with his craft at too young an age. As guest artists take the stage nightly, the spa clientele seek soul rejuvenation through massage, tennis and swimming during the day. It’s idyllic – perhaps too much of a privileged lifestyle on display.
YOUTH is an oxymoron of a film, managing to be deep and shallow, spinning a yarn that’s smart and stupid, holding you at arm’s length while pulling you close all at the same time. At least it’s an utterly gorgeous vision. Ludovica Ferrario’s production design mixes old with new – an allusion to the elderly and youthful patrons and ideals mixing at the hotel. Music plays a huge part, oscillating from disco, to hipster introspective soft rock, to Euro pop, to opera. It’s as much an auditory journey as a visual one. We dive deep into the musical viewpoint of Fred as he crunches his candy wrapper and conducts cows in the fields. It’s a schizophrenic soundscape that’s a symphony of sound and vision. Keitel and Caine’s chemistry also earns high marks. They’re believable as pals – and totally endearing to boot.
Nevertheless, it’s not perfection. There are a handful of characters who go nowhere, barely impacting the message of the story. Who is that uber-famous obese gentleman in the trucker cap and what’s his deal? The monk represents Tree’s clarity, at least I assume he does. Are Mick’s annoying co-scripters – the aforementioned Greek chorus – just representing the conflicting voices in his mind? Maybe. We’ll never know because art. The silent couple at dinner Mick and Fred take bets on are the comedic relief – only they are more random and baffling than funny. Sorrentino also stages a segment where two motor scooters collide in a hall and the drivers scream at each other in German. I can imagine this is funny only to niche audiences. One character dresses up as Hitler. It’s a shock value gag that earned scoffs and stunned silence at the screening I attended.
There’s an off-putting juxtaposition when it comes to the treatment of the female characters. The narrative is almost exclusively male-crisis driven, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The auteur puts women on a pedestal but also tears them down throughout. Sad sack Lena is in the throes of full blown daddy issues after her husband abandons her for pop tartlet Paloma Faith, whom Lena thinks of as “worse than a prostitute.” That jab comes across as elitist and pits women against each other when it’s really the man at fault. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE Fonda’s aging former ingénue is clearly clinging to her youth. She’s positioned as a villain, punished for adapting to the times. There’s also a gawky prostitute that frequents the hotel lobby, a barely legal masseuse, and a hijab-clad woman in an elevator who stares back at Fred. She shows she’s formidable, but he ends their engagement with apathy. Is this how Fred and Sorrentino feel about beauty in general? Tree mocks Miss Universe’s (Madalina Diana Ghenea) intelligence and she shows him up. Later, however, Mick and Fred ogle her naked body gliding seductively through the pool. Mick’s realization comes late. Yes, we’re dynamic and can’t be compartmentalized. It makes for a cool shot and concept but it’s treated as a vignette of an idea rather than something woven into the narrative’s tapestry.
Sorrentino’s avatar also proclaims his latest project is his “intellectual and moral testament.” The audience can feel it’s Sorrentino’s as well. Is he the new Fellini? Possibly. This is his most lush, saturated, polished work to date. It’s possible a return to this film every so often could yield different messages to the beholder. But many may find humoring the director’s “philosophy and big ideas” to be a big waste of time indeed.
3 out of 5
YOUTH opens in limited release on December 4.