Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015)
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino – winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2014 for his marvelous epic The Great Beauty – is back with a new film, his first in English, entitled Youth. It shares many themes with its predecessor – aging, nostalgia for the past, the importance of art and and the appreciation of it – and aspires to offer the same profound meditations on the meaning of life. Sorrentino is clearly fascinated with the films of Fellini: where The Great Beauty felt like an homage to La Dolce Vita, this latest one clearly evokes 8½. As before, Sorrentino works with the wonderful cinematographer Luca Bigazzi to create images of unparalleled beauty. Unfortunately, whereas the previous film was a profound study of life’s greatest questions, this latest is neither profound nor great. It’s not without interest, but mostly feels like a series of sketches in search of a script.
We are at a luxurious spa hotel in Switzerland (in real life a combination of both the Schatzalp in Davos and the Waldhaus in Sils Maria), where the wealthy – in particular, wealthy artists – go for peace and relaxation. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, Interstellar) is a retired British conductor/composer, in attendance with his lifelong best friend, Mick (Harvey Keitel, The Grand Budapest Hotel), an American filmmaker a little past his prime, and flanked by his assistant/daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful). Also at the hotel are Hollywood star Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, Love & Mercy), Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea, Dom Hemingway) and the gaggle of young screenwriters that Mick has brought to help fine-tune his next script. Jane Fonda (“Grace and Frankie“) shows up towards the end, as well, as an aging tyrant of an actress on whom Mick has pinned his hopes for that script. There are also the many staff, including one masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic, Traumland) with whom we spend an especially long amount of time in a thread that looks like it might lead to some interesting “Upstairs, Downstairs” kind of moment, but doesn’t.
As the film begins, an emissary from the Queen of England is begging Fred to come out of retirement to conduct a concert for Prince Philip’s birthday. In return, he will receive a knighthood. Fred’s not buying. It turns out that the requested music selection is a series of “simple songs” he composed years earlier that he no longer – for reasons of his own – wishes to perform. End of story. Jimmy Tree watches, nearby, amused. He, too, is frustrated for being known primarily for a blockbuster hit – Mr. Q, in which he played a robot – rather than for his edgier work. He’s here to prepare for his next big role – to be shot in Germany – and when we discover what that role is, it provides one of the best gags in the movie. Sadly, though, it is just a gag, with no meaningful connection to the larger story.
Fred and Mick take long walks in the beautiful countryside, sometimes together, sometimes with others: Fred with his daughter, whose marriage is falling apart, a fact which leads to many accusations from her to him about his infidelity to his own wife, her mother; Mick with his young cohorts; Fred with Jimmy, who is fascinated by the older man and his relationship to his own success. It’s a genuine pleasure to spend time with these fine actors as they discuss their receding youth and passions, and individual scenes are brilliant. The landscapes are stunning – anyone who saw Clouds of Sils Maria, earlier this year, will know what to expect – and the grandeur of the visuals is a lovely backdrop to the sometimes mundane problems of everyday life that even the rich and famous must face. But none of this ever feels connected to a significant higher purpose. It just is. And that is a greater tragedy than any of the onscreen drama: that so much talent should be spent on something that falls so short of the greatness it clearly seeks. Youth is a gorgeous mediocrity, and nothing more.