Youth July 1, 2016
Sometimes I forget that greats like Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda are all nearing eighty years of age. Actors of their caliber are so much a part of my cinema obsessed identity that they seem ageless, embedded in my psyche as youthful heavyweights with an extraordinary number of classic films to back up their respective reputations. I hardly think of Caine as a weathered Brit offering a wise presence; I, instead, imagine him as the devil-may-care anti-hero of The Italian Job (1969) the precociously vulnerable artistic type of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Keitel is the doomed near-cameoing quasi-villain of Taxi Driver (1976), a middle-aged favorite of Tarantino. Fonda is the thinking-man’s sex goddess of Klute (1971) and The China Syndrome (1979).
So 2015’s Youth, an unsuccessful but nevertheless evocative successor to self-discovery classic La Dolce Vita (1960), plays like a sort of elegy for these actors. Though nowhere near death nor retirement, it serves as a reminder that these people are more than just legends; they’re humans, like the rest of us, who just so happen to have prestige following in their wake throughout every moment of their present-day lives. For its esteemed trio of greats (not to mention greats in the making Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano), Youth works as a felicitous tribute to their multi-faceted abilities.
But it sometimes feels more like a good idea that an occupyingly emotional film. Laced with an alluvion of gorgeous imagery (ranging from symbolic expressionism to cinematographic majesty) and oft shallow what does life really mean existentialisms, it’s an accumulation of quarter (Dano) to mid (Weisz) to end of (Caine, Keitel, and Fonda) of life crises that characterizes its figures of discontent as two-dimensional ones that we’re expected to immediately understand because of the actors playing them. A grasp of these people is supposed to be a given, but the malnourishment of character development makes the film more comparable to 2009’s Nine than to 1999’s American Beauty, which is a point of collation better to be avoided.
Auteur Paolo Sorrentino has amassed low-profile critical acclaim over the years through such praised pieces as L’Amico di Famiglia (2006) and The Great Beauty (2013), the latter frequently serving as another Fellini informed epic. Not having not seen any of Sorrentino’s earlier movies, I cannot come to any solid conclusions about him besides the fact that he’s a skilled visual storyteller and a filmmaker of the all-too-rare ambitious sort. When Youth struggles to genuinely move us, it at least looks beautiful, and at least has something interesting to say about its characters. It’s all fine-tuned craftsmanship that fails to be emotively appealing. But it does try, and a lot of it is admirable.
Youth takes place during the much-needed vacation of lifelong friends Fred Ballinger (Caine) and Mick Boyle (Keitel), two industry gods taking time off in the Swiss Alps as they figure out what they’re going to do next in their already idolized careers. Fred, a beloved composer and conductor, is eyeing full-fledged retirement; with his wife’s death haunting him, inspiration eludes him, and he finds himself growing tired of the draining creative process. Mick, by contrast, is a director of the Scorsese brand looking to finish what he considers to be his last masterpiece. Though maybe not as bent toward a long-standing break as his best friend is, he’s enraptured by the idea of giving the project his “all.” His last few pictures have flopped, and he wants the potential swan song to fly.
But both are disturbed by the reality that their best days are behind them. Neither, most likely, is going to recreate their past highs, and death, while still a few years into their future, is closer than it’s ever been. And so their Swiss holiday, which sees them afflicted by life-altering exchanges with an all-important few (including Weisz, Dano, and Fonda, who portray Fred’s daughter, an unsettled actor, and Mick’s muse, respectively), changes their perceptions of themselves for both the worse and the better. Self-actualization can be as damaging as it is healing.
And Youth, as routinely pompous as it is, is improved by the ensemble that surrounds Caine and Keitel, whose characters tell us more about them than monologues or conversations with the other could ever manage. However much Sorrentino flounders in creating a comprehensively stirring film, he does craft a number of fascinating characters (that, in turn, result in magnificent performances) that produce glints of glory. Best of all is Weisz, whose tempestuous characterization provides the movie with some of its most rawly emotional moments, and Fonda, whose walk-on will easily be seen as iconic in latter-day appraisals.
Caine and Keitel, too, are unsurprisingly wonderful. So it’s disappointing that Youth is never quite investing enough to make us really care about its cast. All have hang-ups and neuroses that have the makings of consumingly distraught individuals, but Sorrentino, despite his immeasurable skill set, never writes them as much more than characters. A lived-in quality is essential — its mains, after all, come with a plentitude of baggage — but they only seem to exist for Youth, and Youth only.
But my hesitations could also be the effect of my own high expectations not being fulfilled. I came into the film expecting a modern masterpiece but came out with an extremely well-made would-be high-water mark that never touched me on an intimate level. Maybe it will when my youthful days are behind me and retrospection is as much of a reality for me as it is for Fred and Mick. But I’m only faux-deep presently, and the movie is good when it should be phenomenal. C+