The older one gets, the less anything matters.
So goes the observed mentality of the two main characters of Youth. Wealth is evident, opulence is everywhere, yet the souls of these people have only grown increasingly wanting. So wanting that that numbness and denial have set in. They are now rich, established in their legacies.
These are two aged men who can have whatever they want, except for that which they long for. That is, what they think they long for. They wander the pebbled pathways and spas of the luxury hotel where the film takes place in a perpetual state of anti-stimulation. Have they truly lived too long to get excited about anything?
Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a tremendously respected classical composer who's nagged internally by the fact that his "simple song" is the work he'll be most remembered for. When we meet him, he's long ago retreated into himself, much to the point where his spirit reads as dead.
He speaks like some sort of Buddhist who thinks he's so enlightened by the ugly truths of life that he's transcended emotion. But it's grief and regret that plague Fred, not external specters. When he strolls with his lifetime friend, filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) along the carefully maintained and managed grassy, stone and wooden tranquility of the resort -- the whole place so cozily immersive, it is any wonder no one ever seems to leave? -- he lingers in his obsession with whether or not Mick had slept with a girl they knew when they were young.
Mick says he cannot remember. He seems to brush off Fred's continuous refrain of the same question as though the notion of such a man's need to obtain a single woman were painfully petty. Except...
Jane Fonda has been making waves in the year-end awards circuit for playing Brenda Morel, a diva actress who owes her career to Mick. Mick has been spending his working vacation preparing what will be the cinematic culmination of his own career. He's holed up with a room full of younger, bandwagon-riding screenwriters hashing out something they believe to be brilliant but sounds awful. Naturally, the crown jewel of the piece, the cornerstone component, will be Brenda. As Fonda doesn't arrive in the film until late, and doesn't stay long, her bombastic presence is something of a glorified cameo. One, though, that terribly resonates. Before and after.
More worthy of praise is Keitel, who is more of an irrevocable presence in Youth than he's been in anything else in perhaps decades. It is one of the best supporting actor performances of the year, unmistakably Keitel, but a wholly realized character.
More difficult to embrace is Michael Caine's turn as Fred, so impenetrable he remains at every turn, be the turns good, bad, or indifferent. Of course, for an actor as seasoned as Caine, the likelihood of this is that he's simply done his job correctly.
Also very good are Rachel Weisz as Fred's long-suffering daughter, and Paul Dano as a famous Johnny Depp-like actor who's perceived narcissism isn't what it seems. Alex Macqueen turns up repeatedly as the official emissary to her majesty the Queen of England, requesting that Fred conduct one final special concert of his finest music in her presence, an agreement that cannot be struck even when knighthood is offered in return.
But who needs the Queen when Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) is strolling around the hotel spa, occasionally in the buff, no less? Mick and Fred's content admiration of her form is undercut, however, when she speaks in a different scene to reveal a real woman with real opinions, feeling, and intelligence. The old boys like the ladies, just as they like the resort; but every facade, every immaturity, must be made apparent. No pleasure is truly simple.
Such is the guarantee of Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian filmmaker who's opted to follow up his Academy Award winner The Great Beauty with this film. Although this review is now getting to him, it's Sorrentino who's the true star of Youth. Just as Caine's physical resemblance and character similarities to The Great Beauty's star Toni Servillo in that film proves to be a misnomer, as Youth's first half plays like a high-end old-guys-bickering movie, that too proves to be a misnomer by the film's conclusion.
Sorrentino, in his time at the luxury resort, didn't slack on the job; he spends the film reaching for elusive brilliance just as his characters reach for the intangibles that never were, and never are. But as an imperfect delving by a filmmaker who insists on an all-or-nothing approach to every aspect of his filmmaking, Youth is compelling in its would-be grandiosity.
Sound pretentious? That's been the verdict leveled by many who've felt Youth to be an unfocused misfire of grandiosity, faux-intellectualism, and artsy-fartsy veneer. It has, in fact, been accused of being the actualization of the movie project Mick and his cadre of underlings are concocting. This reviewer respectfully disagrees with such judgement, on the grounds that, while flawed and sometimes reaching in vain, Youth indeed does arrive at the place it initially sets out for.
And that place, whatever it is, matters.