Paolo Sorrentino is a filmmaker maximalist who strings together grand images and fortifies them with powerhouse melodies. Youth, like The Great Beauty before it, tries to cash in on the big intangible ideals, sometimes captured by the old Italian masters. Does Sorrentino consider himself part of their ilk? Can he swing with the big boys? Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired conductor/composer vacationing in the Swiss Alps and chiefly plagued by apathy, as diagnosed by his daughter (Rachel Weisz). Along with Mick (a sanguine Harvey Keitel), they shuffle around the exquisite grounds discussing their piss and prostrate situation, lest we forget their age. Youth of course is what the two men are reminded they do not have, though amid the other hotel guests who are marked by a similar general ennui and inward retreat - and of course wealth - the problem of old age and the closeness of death are mostly forgotten, until a line of faux-profound dialogue bops us on the head and nudges towards something about human connection, feeling, and regret. They each suffer some, as father and husband and artist.
Fred treads in retirement, refusing to conduct his famed "Simple Songs" at Her Majesty's request, while Mick reworks his screenplay, a self-called last testament. The second half shifts a tad to give Harvey Keitel his due, as he and a cabal of young screenwriters try to figure out the script’s last line. Any of those proffered would feel at home in this movie, where the dialogue is on the nose. Written by Sorrentino, the screenplay is one where precocious children are rendered into narrative seers, existing to parrot a character’s true feelings, by saying exactly what they’re thinking. The result is neither cute nor clever.
Fred and Mick are men at ease. Neither possesses the virility of Tony Servillo's aging writer in The Great Beauty, or his priggish and oily machismo. Caine and Keitel are asexual, fatherly men in natty dress who go with the flow of things. The sleepy nature of their autumn twilight is not the issue; it's the sedate nature of a story without deeper sentiment. Underneath it all, Youth is a grandpa's-last-hurrah movie, albeit one gussied up with class and fine china. A naked Miss Universe substitutes Vegas strippers and proves just as shallow.
The film's best moments include the minor players. Criminally underrated Rachel Weisz is impressive as Fred’s daughter/assistant, her bitterness bubbling over in a fine bit of acting. Paul Dano excels as a Hollywood star, preparing for a new role while escaping his mainstream recognition. Their scenes are memorable in the two hour film that presents many different faces. There is never a dull moment musically, either. Sweeping score and soundtrack is chock full of gems, including melancholic ones from indie musician Mark Kozelek (who also appears), a model of moody, male anguish and perhaps a fitting match for Sorrentino.
The director’s visual sense is better, if at times indulgent (see: female nudity). Full of confidence, Sorrentino's direction never wavers and he sees the film through to the end. Preferred cinematographer Luca Bigazzi presents beautiful images, though luxuriating in them can sometimes feel too brief. It's all Vogue goes National Geographic, rich in color. The camera roves and swoops through the idyllic Alps, but too bad there's nothing but wind echoing between the hills.