“Such tremendous effort, Mick…” Michael Caine’s retired composer whispers to Harvey Keitel’s still-working film director towards the middle of Youth, the latest Fellini-esque trip from Paolo Sorrentino.
“Such tremendous effort, for such modest results.”
Caine’s character is speaking about all the little things he’s intentionally done while raising his daughter (played by Rachel Weisz) over the years – all the things he’s done for her to remember him by – and the ultimate effect he now feels they have.
It’s a poignant moment. And one, I couldn’t help feel, that somewhat describes the film that surrounds it. There’s so much care and beauty and note-perfect detail in Sorrentino’s presentation here. But what’s the ultimate result?
Youth is a little bit of a mess – and certainly not as on-target as the director’s previous film, the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty – but there are so many striking sequences and memorable scenes that I can’t help but greatly admire the film anyway.
Caine is Fred Ballinger, a famous composer who opens the film by refusing to come out of retirement to perform at the Queen’s request. His reasons for doing so – spelled out later on – form the film’s unexpectedly touching crux.
He’s staying (living?) at a luxurious mountainside retreat at the foot of the Swiss Alps, alongside the kind of oddball characters you expect from a Fellini film: a morbidly overweight Hispanic man who was once a famed soccer celebrity, a couple who don’t say a word to each other during meals, a young escort who services the older guests, and so on.
And then there’s Mick Boyle (Keitel), Fred’s longtime friend and a film director, working with a team of writers while at the hotel to finish off the script for his upcoming film.
That film is set to star famed actress Brenda Morel, who Boyle brought to fame a long time ago in his earlier films. Jane Fonda shows up for little more than a single scene as Brenda towards the end of the film, but it’s the kind Hollywood-bitter, can’t-take-your-eyes-off her powerhouse performance that elevates the entire film.
Fonda will likely get a Supporting Actress Oscar out of her five minutes of screentime in Youth, and it’s the best sequence in the movie, even though it only tangentially relates to the main storyline.
Also on hand: Fred’s daughter, played by Weisz, who has just been left by her fiancée (who happens to be Mick’s son), and Jimmy Tree (played by Paul Dano), a famous actor preparing for his next role but best remembered for his lead in a blockbuster action franchise. I think the Dano character is inspired by Shia LaBeouf, but the characterization veers awfully close to Birdman territory.
What’s Youth all about? There’s a lot of reminiscing about the past and ruminating about the future, and the movie seems to go down the same road that Sorrentino went down in The Great Beauty. But there are unexpected moments of depth and clarity and, indeed, great beauty, and the filmmaking craft and satiric bite make this palatable for audiences looking for more than two old guys chatting about the meaning of it all.
And there are individual scenes that just stick with you: that shot of Miss Universe in the swimming pool, an unlikely K2 mountain climbing story told by a supporting character, a hilarious pop music video dream sequence starring Paloma Faith as herself.
There are also two unforgivably poor moments of CGI that take you out of the movie: one involving a tennis ball that looks about as convincing as an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job, and the other is a laughably green-screened five-second mountaineering shot.
But Youth has enough going for it to overcome the occasional scene that doesn’t work. Sorrentino’s second English-language feature (after the Sean Penn-starring This Must Be the Place) retains his trademark curiosities, but it’s his most accessible to date.