Retired composer and conductor, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz) are holidaying at an upscale resort in the Swiss Alps. Fred’s old friend, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is also there. Fred and Mick are octogenarians whose best creative days would seem to be behind them. Mick is leading a group of young writers on the third draft of a film he plans to make with veteran actress Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). Fred on the other hand, is definitely retired. An emissary from The Palace visits to persuade him to conduct one of his own compositions at a concert for Prince Philip’s birthday. Fred refuses for personal reasons.
The story is a string of incidents and episodes involving Fred and Mick’s grown up children, ex-lovers, ex-spouses and the other guests. These include a hip young A-list actor working on a role (Paul Dano) and an overweight Maradona-like footballer (Roly Serrano). The hotel is large and grand. The numerous staff keep their well-heeled guests fed, watered, massaged and entertained. Mick and Fred take country walks where they look back on their lives and try to make sense of the past eighty years.
This movie is less a narrative and more a meditation on age and the many losses it encompasses. There are dramatic and comedic moments, but YOUTH is not a geezer comedy in the mode of last year’s A WALK IN THE WOODS; it takes no inspiration from the 2007 biker comedy WILD HOGS. Which is a shame, because I believe there were some scenes in the middle that could be spiced up with a fist-fight in a cowboy bar or a run in with a bumbling sheriff’s department. Instead we are granted the philosophical ruminations of Mick and Fred.
Director Paolo Sorrentino likes a wealthy, artistic male protagonist as a mouthpiece. His first English language film THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (2011) had a great and unusual performance in its centre from Sean Penn, playing a delicate, demanding middle-aged musician. 2013’s Oscar winning THE GREAT BEAUTY (La Grande Bellezza) starred Toni Servillo as writer in his mid-60s. As in those films, Sorrentino keeps the audience guessing through his inventive use of camera. The images are always stunning, sometimes self-consciously arty and other times purposefully jarring. He has the patience and discipline to make you wait to understand the unfolding scenario.
Whether you understand or like this picture will depend on how you feel about arthouse cinema and obliquely told stories. I thought this was a minor work compared to The Great Beauty. That film is a love letter to modern Italy. Here, the themes are still large, (“Sex and Death, what else is there?” to paraphrase Peter Greenaway) but the scope of the story is smaller. Fred says he can barely remember the voices and faces of his parents. Mick feels guilt that his son has separated from Lena. Lena mourns the loss of her mother especially in light of having the emotionally distant Fred as the remaining parent. Emotions are expressed, but there are no neat answers for us to take home.
Michael Caine, a man who clearly thinks retirement means you still turn up for work, is on record as saying he was flattered that Sorrentino wrote the movie specifically for him. It is different territory for Caine, but he excels. His communication with an audience, through a look or a gesture, is brilliant. Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda are as good as one would expect, but Fonda’s best scene is not the conversation her character has with Keitel’s late in the piece, but in a shorter one after that. Rachel Weisz’s role is small, but her character is an intriguing mix of strength and brittleness. There is talent to burn in this cast, which I feel overcomes the looseness of the screenplay.
YOUTH is in limited release all around Oz. Running time 2h 4m. (7/10)