“Youth” is amusing, baffling, and mesmerizing in its odd beautiful moments. It often feels uneven and random as juggling many various elements around its leisurely background, but then we are gripped by its fabulous moments, and its idiosyncratic musing around youth and aging is engaging to watch thanks to its two great actors, who have lived long enough to fully embody their respective characters.
Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a famous British composer/conductor who has been comfortable with his semi-retirement status. While he is enjoying his long vacation at a luxurious hotel in the Swiss Alps region, he is approached by an emissary from Queen Elizabeth II, and the emissary tells him that the queen wants Ballinger to conduct the performance of his most well-known work “Simple Songs” for her husband’s birthday celebration. Although he does not lose any interest or passion for music, Ballinger flatly rejects this request for a personal reason, and the emissary becomes nervous because his queen really wants Ballinger.
His longtime friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a movie director who has been known well for several films in his long Hollywood career, is also staying at the hotel for vacation, but, unlike his friend, he is eager to work more even though his career has dwindled during recent years. He frequently spends his time on the brainstorm session with a group of young dopey people revering him, and we see them struggling to get a good ending for their unfinished screenplay. Mick hopes that their screenplay will attract a famous Hollywood actress who collaborated with him many times during their prime, but we cannot help but have doubts on that.
While time slowly goes by for everyone in the hotel, Fred and Mick become more aware of the closing time which will come to them someday. As two old friends who have known each other for more than 50 years, they often talk about their past during their occasional sunny strolls around the beautiful mountainous landscapes near the hotel, and they are reminded of how things in their past have been vague and distant to them in these days. They remember one sexy woman to whom both of them were attracted, but they did not remember well how exactly things went among them and that woman.
Besides the routine evening events for hotel guests, the various people in the hotel are the constant source of amusement for Fred and Mick. There is an overweight South American guy who is always recognized by others for his celebrity status, and I will let you discover for yourself whom the movie makes a big fun of. We get acquainted with a young masseuse, and the movie shows her private recreation hour from time to time. We meet a Buddhist monk in meditation for a certain transcendent goal, and then there is also a middle aged couple continuing the unnerving silence between them, which later leads to a comic payoff when Fred and Mick happen to spot them at one unexpected point.
And two other characters keep revolving around Fred and Mick. Lena (Rachel Weisz), who is Fred’s daughter and secretary, really needs to have some rest when her husband, who is Mick’s son, leaves her for a young pop singer star. Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a popular Hollywood actor who has been tired of always being recognized for one popular robot movie he does not like a lot, is preparing for his new role to play during his stay at the hotel, and he is willing to listen to any creative input from Mick or Fred.
Slowly but confidently moving under its relaxed mood, the movie gives us a number of memorable moments which are more than enough for its several notable missteps including Tree’s misguided makeup attempt. While a brief scene where Fred tries one imaginative musical moment alone with cows and their bells on the field is sublime in its effortless execution of sounds and visuals, the deranged music video scene featuring Lena’s husband and his new lover is striking for its uproariously over-the-top style to tickle you. Although Mick’s young colleagues look clownish as sort of yes-men, the camera lovingly gazes upon them and Mick during one drowsy moment, and there is a poignant scene when Mick gives a small life lesson to one of them during their free time at a mountain observatory. The cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, who has been one of the director/writer Paolo Sorrentino’s main collaborators, did a terrific job again here, and we are absorbed into the visual details on the screen even during the most confounding moments.
While he appeared in some really bad movies like “Jaws: the Revenge” (1987) and “On Deadly Ground” (1994), Michael Caine has seldom been boring to watch for many years, and, considering that he has recently been considering retirement, his subtle nuanced performance in “Youth” may be the last highlight of his long, stellar career. In one certain scene around the finale, Caine does not move or speak at all, but we can see how much his character is emotionally affected by what has just happened right in front of his eyes, and it came to my mind that an actor’s talent can be judged from how he convincingly reacts as a character.
I will probably never, never, never forget his embarrassing supporting turn in that truly awful film called “The Last Godfather” (2010), but Harvey Keitel has always been a dependable actor since his debut in Martin Scorsese’s first feature film “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” (1967), and he has his own moments including a fantastic scene which is clearly influenced by that bittersweet finale of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” (1963). Rachel Weisz is also excellent as a daughter who still has lots of personal issues with her father, and she somehow makes the scene work when Lena pours out her old resentful feelings to her father under a circumstance rather silly and awkward for that. While Paul Dano captures well humor and pathos in his superficial character, Jane Fonda does not waste any second of her brief appearance later in the film, and she and Keitel instantly establish the long history between their characters right from the start.
While he has been regarded as a new exciting talent to watch, Sorrentino’s previous films have ironically been about old guys stuck in their high plateau stages of later years. In “Il Divo” (2008), its compellingly insidious politician hero studiously remains to be an enigma while securing his political safety till the end. In “This Must Be the Place” (2011), Sean Penn’s aging rocker hero stubbornly sticks to his old-fashioned appearance and reclusive lifestyle until he is finally compelled to go through a small but significant change in the end. In Oscar-winning film “The Great Beauty” (2013), Toni Servillo’s cynical writer character begins to consider writing his second novel after so many wasted years of fun decadence, but he is still reluctant as strolling around the glimpses of what he once searched for, though he eventually gets his answer in the end.
Through his own offbeat visual panorama which deserves to be compared with Fellini’s works, Sorrentino shows again his confident mastery of filmmaking skills, and Caine and Keitel are a delight to watch even when they do not seem to do anything. The finale may not be perfect, but Caine and Sorrentino make it deeply satisfying – and we admire their small but profound gestures to behold.