Saturday, December 12, 2015

New movie review: Youth

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star in writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's Youth.

Two years ago, filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty. Every element of that film, right down to its plot, owed a debt to Italian master Federico Fellini. In both style and substance, it was a direct riff on the classic La Dolce Vita. As such, it was a remarkably successful film, tapping into the bombast and irreverent energy of that earlier work. Though it may not exactly have been an original idea, Sorrentino at least showed he had a point of view and certainly demonstrated a directorial flair.

Now, Sorrentino is back with Youth, which borrows from the same playbook but lacks the passion or commitment of either The Great Beauty or the films that so influenced him. Youth is stuffed to the gills with ideas and imagery, but the whole ultimately adds up to much less than the sum of its parts. Every time the film gets close to pinning down some deeper truth or meaning, Sorrentino backs away, seemingly less out of fear than preoccupation. He perhaps has too many thoughts to get out and cannot focus on just one at a time.

Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, an internationally famous composer, now long retired, who is on holiday at an exclusive spa in the Alps. He is something of a miser, failing to find joy in much of anything, and his doctors, friends, and family have diagnosed him as apathetic. He seems to feel that diagnosis is accurate and does everything he can to embrace it. He is joined at the resort by daughter/assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), legendary filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), up-and-coming actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), and a whole cavalcade of grotesques.

Generally speaking, it is folly to compare two filmmakers’ work directly, but in every decision he makes, Sorrentino invites the comparison to Fellini. In fact, he seems to relish it. The cast of characters – or caricatures, depending on your point of view – he assembles for Youth seems culled straight from a casting session for one of Fellini’s more whimsical flights of fancy. In addition to the central group, there is an obese former soccer star, an older married couple who never speaks, the recently named Miss Universe, a few pop stars playing themselves, and a teenage prostitute, among others.

These people mostly hang around the edges of the story, and most of them hardly say a word. They provide color to a relatively staid central plot, but that color is meant to give the illusion of depth. In practice, Sorrentino never seems interested in exploring any of their inner lives and instead settles for the mere suggestion they have inner lives before shifting the focus back to our central four.

The plot such as it is revolves around an emissary from Queen Elizabeth II who tries to persuade Fred to conduct again for a special ceremony. He refuses for personal reasons, and the rest of the film ostensibly explores what those personal reasons could be. Mick and a group of young writers are putting the finishing touches on a screenplay for the movie Mick wants to be his legacy, while Jimmy is resting before going off to shoot a Serious Film – the capital letters are mine. Lena is waiting to go on a trip with her husband, who is also Mick’s son, but he leaves her for one of those pop stars I mentioned. She is thus left adrift emotionally and geographically, so she remains at the spa.

Rachel Weisz in Youth.
For a movie featuring fantastic leading performances from Caine and Keitel, Weisz is actually the standout. Given a lot less to play by the script, Weisz takes a fairly clich̩ character Рthe adult daughter still hurt over the way her father treated the family Рand gives the role a memorable spin, providing the kind of strength and motivation lacking in many of the other characters.

Caine is still a force to be reckoned with onscreen, and Sorrentino does well to play off his lead’s public persona as a debonair man about town who does not really care what others think of him. As Fred, Caine is charming and off-putting in equal measure, and from an audience standpoint, he is just a lot of fun to watch. Keitel is great as well but with a far more problematic character. Sorrentino wants us to be a lot more interested in Mick’s supposed crowning achievement than he gives us any reason to be.

At its core, the film is about artists concerned with their legacies while confronting more immediate matters such as aging and ill health. Sorrentino draws explicit parallels between the younger Jimmy, who is best known for playing a robot in a dumb science-fiction movie and wishes people knew his more serious films, and the older Fred, whose best known compositions are his “Simple Songs,” though he has written more complex and impressive works.

In theory, such contradictions and concerns could be fertile ground for exploration, introspection, and character development, but again, Sorrentino does not seem interested in exploring. It is more like a survey of all the ways these characters might feel about their lives and legacies. The film never seems to have a specific view on any of the ideas it presents but rather meanders from story to story, haphazardly tripping over stray profound thoughts along the way.

It must be acknowledged, however, that in all this wandering, Sorrentino manages to find some beautiful imagery and stunning compositions. It is almost remarkable for a movie that wants so badly to be about the importance of substance over style just how flashy the filmmaking is and how empty its ideas are. The alpine vistas are obviously gorgeous, but even the interiors are given energy and interest by Sorrentino’s camera placements and shot choices. If only the story had generated as much intrigue, Youth really could have been something.

See it? No.

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