Jumping from crescendo to crescendo, Sorrentino hits all the high notes in his bombastically entertaining comedy/drama.
YouthDirector: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
US DVD release date: 2016-03-01
A bloated whale of a man wearing only shorts stands on an outdoor court kicking a tennis ball high in the air. He’s abandoned his walking stick, relying on that famous left foot for a brief return to a past far behind him. It’s a scene rich in absurdity and underlined by sadness, a pattern repeated across Youth. Paolo Sorrentino’s seventh feature, his second in English, is bold, occasionally brash, and always visually and musically arresting. It’s a film relentlessly full-on to the extent that it doesn’t so much get under the skin as blast its way through the epidermis.
Youth is about many things, packing a great deal into a thematically dense two hours, but as the title suggests, aging stands at the heart. The main character is Fred Ballinger, a retired composer played with wry apathy by Michael Caine. After a career spent making his name and ignoring his family, much to the chagrin of his daughter and manager Rachel Weisz, he’s retired to a simple life of contemplation and regrets. The music hasn’t gone out of him entirely; he can’t help but imagine the sound of a crinkling sweet wrapper or cow bells in the hands of an orchestra, but the desire is dead. He’s particularly terse with an emissary from the Queen who wishes to dole out a knighthood in exchange for a performance of his famous Simple Songs, provided Ballinger takes the conductor's baton.
He’s not the only one grappling with professional problems. His best friend of many years, acclaimed film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is working on what he considers to be his final testament; a project he hopes will return him to the success of earlier years. There are also notable turns from Jane Fonda’s over-the-top diva Brenda Morel, and Paul Dano’s brooding actor Jimmy Tree, popular because he once made a film in which he played a robot, and desperately disgusted with himself because it’s the only thing anyone remembers about him. They, and a host of other walk-on parts, each adding depth to the overall picture, are together at a luxurious summer spa resort in the Swiss mountains, the kind of place that comes with fresh air, fancy food and endless health treatments. In short, it’s a classic Sorrentino world.
The Italian director often makes films that exist in their own universe, one of diminished hope and persevering beauty. Much like his last effort, The Great Beauty (2013), the best film of the decade to date, Youth is the stunningly privileged grappling with problems that might seem trivial to anyone struggling to put food on the table. Look again though, because his world isn’t so much one of the elite as it is one of his own creation, allowing him to tackle complex ideas in an elaborately controlled manner. Alongside the perils of aging, and the sadness that comes when most of life seems to be receding into the past, he also posits thoughts on the nature of art and fame, the sacrifices that come with a life dedicated to work, and the connection that forms between people, both familial and romantic.
If that sounds pretty full-on, it is, especially when encased in his operatic style. Working with regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, the camera glides around the pristinely sculpted resort, offering perfectly framed landscapes aplenty. And that’s just the backdrop. The real focus is faces, drawn in by the camera as characters seek to control emotions against testing challenges. Add a typically eclectic soundtrack that takes in a wonderful score from David Lang, and musical choices ranging from choral compositions to Florence and the Machine, Paloma Faith (who also appears in a truly bizarre cameo) and the sublime Godspeed You! Black Emperor and it couldn’t be anything but a Sorrentino film.
Don’t let the graceful bombast fool you though, this is no immaculately humourless affair. Unlike his previous effort in English, This Must Be the Place (2011), which felt like it suffered because of the language shift, there are numerous asides and great visual gags thrown in. Whether it’s Caine and Keitel discussing their urinary successes, an awkward mountaineer describing the bedside table he once found at the summit of K2, or a silent couple that form the basis of an ongoing bet, there’s always a moment of comic relief to counter heaving symbolism.
That’s not to say everything about the shift to English is a success. The screenplay certainly contains a fair few clunkers along the way, and some of the minor roles appear to have been gifted without a thorough auditioning process. A young violinist, a member of the royal entourage , and even Ed Stoppard as Mick’s son, all deliver dialogue as if they’ve just wandered in off the street.
There’s no such problem with the main performances, however. Caine, a man at odds with his character in that he has not given up, continuing to deliver vital work well into old age, is in top form as the world-weary Ballinger. He hides his distress at what has become of him behind sharp humour, but with slight changes in posture he’s able to convey more than most actors do with the most flamboyant of theatrics.
Keitel is a worthy foil, the believer of the two who hasn’t yet abandoned himself to age, and all the more likely to take setbacks badly as a result. He brings energy and frustration to a role that would fall flat without both. Dano also rises to their level, turning in another nuanced and intense performance in a career that is shaping up as one of the most interesting of his contemporaries. Elsewhere, Weisz is solid as ever and Fonda provides a great, late burst of in-your-face vitality.
If Caine and Dano in particular bring nuance, they are about the only ones that do. Sorrentino is often accused of copying the great Italian director Federico Fellini, and there are certainly similarities. He’s taken that criticism on board and turned it back in Youth, deliberately paying homage in several scenes, most notably Fellini's spa sequences in 8 ½. He’s right to do so, because wherever he has drawn influence from, his work is defiantly his own. Youth is big and plaintively emotional, taking serious matters on head-first. Sorrentino is not a director for subtle intonation and ambiguous visuals, he’s the guy you turn to for emotive spectacle, and he delivers again. Youth is many things, but at its heart it’s a simple song, one that deserves repeat plays.
The Blu-ray release comes with a number of short features, all around three- to four-minutes long, culled from interviews with the main players. While entertaining, the extras are padding more than anything, adding little of substance to the package.