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Youth (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 2, 2020



YOUTH (2015)

Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Mark Kozelek, Robert Seethaler, Alex MacQueen, Luna Mijovic, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, Mark Gessner, Paloma Faith, Ed Stoppard, Sonia Gessner, Madalina Ghenea, Sumi Jo and Dorji Wangchuk.

Screenplay by Paolo Sorrentino.

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  118 minutes.  Rated R.

Sometimes there is a point where you have to ask yourself as a film viewer: Can a movie be just too self-consciously artistic?

Youth is a stunningly shot and acted film, with gorgeous scenery, arresting symbolism, some smart writing, an incredible cast and directed with élan and verve, and yet sitting through the movie feels like doing hard time in the whimsy factory.

Youth is only the second English language film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino.  The other was This Must Be the Place with Sean Penn, which was a similarly uneven mix of the sublime and the banal.  Sorrentino is obviously strongly influenced by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, and he shares some of these artists’ intense imagination, as well as some of their most self-indulgent aspects.  Maybe this stuff would play better in Italian with subtitles, but in this usage it tends to feel unbearably self-satisfied and pretentious.

Somewhat ironically, Youth is the story of two elderly men.  Then again, not all that ironically, because those two men obsessively cling to their memories of being young and idealize the younger people who surround them in an Swiss resort that is both a vacation destination and a health facility.

Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a world-famous retired classical music composer and conductor, who is still missing his late wife, the famous mezzo-soprano who was the voice of his finest works.  He is being courted for a comeback concert, but Ballinger is having trouble with the idea of any other singer performing the works that he wrote for his wife.  It feels like an infidelity to him.

He is also dealing with a more specific infidelity, his estranged, bitter daughter (Rachel Weisz) is staying with Ballinger because she is bereft that her husband has left her for a cheesy pop singer (Paloma Faith playing a fictionalized version of herself).  Ballinger is also feeling his age creeping up on him, realizing that his time is coming sooner rather than later.

Ballinger’s best friend is aging film director Mick Boyle, played by Harvey Keitel.  (And it is quite nice to see Keitel getting a substantial role again.)  Boyle is at the resort working with a bunch of young actors, trying hard to come up with the inspiration that will drive his latest film.

However, the whole project depends upon Boyle’s muse, an aging actress played by Jane Fonda, who he had discovered as a young ingénue, and with whom he’d made almost 20 films.  However, the actress has grown jaded, bitter and hurtful, flying in just to turn him down as cruelly as she possibly can.  (Fonda, who normally is surprisingly youthful for a woman of over 70, is made up to be a callow, aged, angry, mean hag.  It’s a terrific job of acting wasted on an exasperatingly unlikable character.)

They are all surrounded by a whole rogues gallery of supposedly lovable eccentrics: dancing masseuses, skinny-dipping goddesses, silent couples, bemused actors, romantically-challenged rock climbers, a slumming rock star, visiting luminaries and a silent monk who may or may not fly.  The scenery, particularly the mountains, but also the fabulously garish resort, is stunning.  However, there is only so far that you can go with fanciful visuals, oddball plot twists, against the grain editing, strangely-paced dialogue (The New York Times pointed out, rightly so, that the dialogue feels like it was awkwardly translated into English from another language) and scenes that end on weirdly off-kilter moments.  Eventually, the audience is completely exhausted.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Youth is that you feel like you’re growing old just sitting and watching it.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: December 4, 2015.

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