Movie review: Youth
Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to The Great Beauty feels like opera sung in English: Pretentious, puffy and frequently plain stupid
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda, Rachel Weisz,
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Running time: 118 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Paolo Sorrentino has yet to awaken from his fever dream. He still thinks he’s Federico Fellini on his deathbed, conjuring his final tableau featuring grimacing clowns and a completely naked Miss Universe.
There’s nothing wrong with the delusion. Everyone wants to be the conquering hero of their own narrative, and we can forgive the Oscar-winning director of The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellaza) for having a slightly swollen ego in the wake of his big Hollywood win.
But there comes a point in Youth where all you want to do is throw cold water in the face of each overcooked character and tell them to grow up, which is odd, considering the movie is about people in their last chapter of life.
Ripping a page from his very own notebook, Sorrentino returns to the last of the aging creator. In his Oscar-winning movie that penned a picturesque love letter to Rome, we watched an older writer face the ghosts of love lost and unmerited celebrity through surreal vignettes.
In Youth, we watch an old composer (Michael Caine) and an aging film director (Harvey Keitel) face the very same demons.
Fred Ballinger (Caine) has been asked to come out of retirement to play a special concert for Her Majesty the Queen. He refuses the great invitation in the opening act, urging us down the thorny path of ‘why?’ for the rest of the film.
Meanwhile, Mick Boyle (Keitel), is a famous Hollywood director trying to make his ‘final testament’ — an ode to emotion and life’s great existential questions that will cement his reputation on the cinematic firmament.
The only problem is Mick has no finished script and his lead actress Brenda (Jane Fonda) isn’t entirely committed, putting the financing at risk, and potentially throwing a death lance into the heart of Boyle’s career.
Both men are toeing a mortal cliff edge, and conveniently, not only are they both acquainted, they are both staying at the same upscale Alpine resort, where all the action of Youth is contained.
Situated amid high meadows full of wildflowers and milking cows wearing great big bells, this magical resort immediately lends the movie a privileged sense of place, as well as a timelessness that helps matters of theme.
There’s no question the movie is gorgeous as it feasts its prime lenses on snow capped mountains and the luxurious world of white linen service items. Half the fun is simply being in this environment to see how the super-wealthy live in this world of endless decadence, and yet still can’t find a moment of true happiness.
Woe is them: Old white men with tons of money and fame, plagued by lingering insecurities and the idea that their one true love got away.
They say things like “we are all extras” and “I know all there is to know about love” and “emotion is all we have.”
The lines fall like lead to the floor every time because they may be sincere in their intent, but they feel completely manufactured, an affectation made all the more irritating when embellished by self-conscious camera angles and multisyllabic silliness.
Some of the more tedious moments arise when Sorrentino looks into the creative mirror and shows us the film writers struggling to come up with a good story. They lie with their heads together and stare into the camera, slowly, painfully articulating potential lines and story points as the lens pans across their carefully lit faces.
If this was supposed to be a fascinating insight into the process, it feels like an uncomfortable glance behind the curtain watching someone who didn’t have a solid idea when they started, and ended up creating a meta-fiction about their own creative failure — dressed up in A-list sequins and epic locations.
It’s all so puffy and pretentious that it even includes a shot of a buddhist hovering cross-legged over the valley — visual proof that the boundaries we make in our heads are the only limitations to our own happiness.
Every shred of metaphor is delivered with a beat to the chest and a wink of arrogant ego, even as it pleads humility in the face of mortal concerns. There’s a disconnect in tone that drains any sense of truth from the frame because Youth is supposed to be a story of aging — but it’s being told by a young man.
Sorrentino uses athletically pretentious flourishes to show us the existential void, but his central characters are supposed to be old, stiff, infirm. It’s like watching an actor aged with grey hair and wrinkles do backflips after talking about their arthritis.
Nothing feels authentic, which is truly depressing when you consider how much talent Sorrentino was working with in front of the camera. Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz offer some truly fantastic scene work, but glazed in Sorrentino’s heavy sauce, we lose the subtle nuances and flavours of each character.
By the time Paul Dano shows up as Hitler — seriously — you know Sorrentino was scratching the bottom of the creative barrel to conjure moral metaphor.
In so many ways, Youth is just a repeat of La Grade Bellaza, only told in English — without the benefit of blurry translations. It’s a bit like listening to opera and being able to understand the words. Sung in Italian, even trite lyrics sound highly romantic, but sung in English, they just sound like a schoolyard chant — delivered by a pretentious soprano who holds each note far too long.
THE EX-PRESS, December 4, 2015