At a Swiss luxury spa, acclaimed conductor/composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) refuses the pleas of the Queen's Emissary (Alex Macqueen, "One Chance") to perform for Her Majesty. Unlike his friend, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), who is working on what he believes will be his magnum opus with young screenwriters indulging his death grip, Fred has not only retired from his career, but seemingly from life itself. In very different ways, both men are mourning their "Youth."
After winning the Foreign Language Film Oscar last year for "The Great Beauty," writer/director Paolo Sorrentino ("Il Divo") follows up with a heavy handed movie with one too many messages, excusing himself with one in which artists are condemned for their 'moments of levity.' Still, Sorrentino gets fine performances, and, as usual, beautiful music and stunning, albeit oft obligatory, imagery. There are many moments too enjoy here even if the whole disappoints.
The film begins (and ends) on a musical performance, the spa's house band (The Retrosettes) covering 'You've Got the Love' on a rotating stage as its guests sit outdoors in the moonlight. Fred is there with his assistant daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and there's something bubbling beneath the surface of their relationship that will pop when she learns her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard, PBS's 'Home Fires,' "The Pianist") is leaving her for pop star Paloma Faith (herself). Actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is preparing for a role and believes he and Fred share the burden of being most well known for their lightest works, Tree's Mr. Q and Ballinger's 'Simple Songs.' The newly crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea, "Dom Hemingway") arrives to the delight of Fred and Mick and to school the Jimmy in his condescending presumptions. Later Mick's muse and the intended star of his work-in-progress (the conspicuously titled 'Life's Last Day') Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) will arrive to tell him some hard truths.
So we have one senior shutting himself off from his art while another continues past his expiration date, a father/daughter relationship in jeopardy and a young actor at an artistic crossroads. There is also a middle-aged couple who never speak to one another and an obese former South American soccer player (Roly Serrano) still idolized by fans (and whose tennis ball play calls back to "This Must Be the Place's" empty pool hand ball game). In addition to exploring artistic creation and legacy, Sorrentino wages several battles between the sexes, the fiercest of which is the entirely different perspectives of Fred and Lena (with Weisz delivering one wallop of pain and outrage to her father).
Caine's measured turn is at times wistful, wry and closed off, the actor's reaction to big, emotional moments one of silence (watch his face as his daughter kisses the back of his neck, his expression revealing not only parental joy, but one of a male receiving feminine attention). He enjoys an easy camaraderie with Keitel, whose director could have used a heavier dose of ego to justify the script's late developments. Jane Fonda has received a lot of attention for her one scene role and she's fine but Weisz has formed a more complex character, one looking for peace and love while railing against neglect and abandonment. The film's most unexpected dash of spice comes from Dano, who is unafraid to look the clown and does so several times on his way to enlightenment.
While the film offers many stunning shots, some feel obligatory, like Sorrentino's juxtapositions of beauty and obscenity. The filmmaker is in need of self editing, his ideas spiralling in too many directions, his points often dropping like two ton weights. But he ends on a soaring note, his finale featuring soprano Sumi Jo a thing of great beauty indeed.
Robin gives "Youth" a B-.
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