Youth is not that easy to pin down. It is Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel endlessly walking amidst scenic Swiss backdrops, however with avant-garde European elements, long takes and a daring score, Director Paolo Sorrentino serves up something unique, but perhaps not brilliant. Sorrentino’s Youth is an ambitious piece for the auteur, yet it’s not complete. There are pieces left to his puzzle that could not quite find their place.
Youth is a about retired Composer Fred Ballinger (Caine) who is vacationing in the Swiss Alps with his oldest friend, Screenwriter Mick Boyle (Keitel) and his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). While there, Fred is faced with the decision of whether or not to perform his most famous yet benign work The Simple Songs for the Queen of England. In tandem, Mick struggles to complete the final screenplay of his career and Lena grapples with her feelings towards her neglectful father. We also meet Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) an actor struggling to reinvent himself. Similar to Fred, he is widely known only for his most simplistic work as a robot named Mr. Q.
The film is at its best when it explores the bizarre. The film shocks you with memorable moments such as the two leads voyeuristically watching an older couple screwing in the woods, or Jimmy Tree trundling into the hotel dining room in full costume as Adolf Hitler. These outrageous tableaux keep you intrigued long enough to sustain the more mundane parts. There are also many long, beautiful takes of elderly people in Swiss pools and spas that are pleasurable and artful. The film takes risks by including the abstract and when it does it pays dividends.
The issue with the film is the dichotomy Sorrentino creates between the bizarre moments and the simplistic narrative of Fred and Mick. Spliced between the eccentric moments are pedestrian scenes where Fred and Mick mundanely discuss things such as whether or not they’ve had a piss that day. There is nothing inherently wrong with the latter; it just lacks in comparison to the other much more interesting content. Fred and Mick are at times too cliché to be in such an interesting film. Mick’s storyline where he is writing his screenplay with several other young writers feels laborious. So many minutes of screen time were wasted choosing uninteresting dialogue for what sounded like an uninteresting last film. Fred’s narrative of performing for the Queen – though more unique and compelling – could have been pushed to more interesting places in a surreal film such as this one. This could have resulted in a more meaningful and dynamic piece about what it means to age.
An aging main cast – with the exception of Dano and Weisz – provide varying levels of performance. Michael Caine is good in the way he is always good. I was hoping this piece would elevate him to daring new levels and regrettably it does not. Keitel is unremarkable. It could be the role or just his performance, but in any case it really is Caine’s film. Weisz’s character Lena has an incredibly strong scene where she lambasts Fred in one long close up that goes for the jugular, an example where Sorrentino takes a risk and is rewarded. For the rest of the film however, Weisz fades into the background. Paul Dano, who adds value wherever he goes, does the same in this film – the aforementioned Hitler scene is reason enough to see the film. Finally, Jane Fonda, who cameos as the aging actress Brenda Morel, turns the movie on its head in a scene that is less than five minutes long. She gives an excellent performance that isn’t afraid to transcend into surreal territory. And this is the problem with the cast: some nail it, some deliver as expected and some, unfortunately, disappoint.
Youth lies somewhere in the in-between. It is not quite great but because of the stand out moments and performances it does not feel right to call it bad. Youth is a cinematic experience from a director who clearly has vision and a unique perspective. However, its failure to fully commit to something truly bizarre makes it fall short of something seminal.