Cast: Michael Cane, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has always titled toward artificiality as aesthetic; tailoring his features as a series of beautifully realized vignettes in search of a proper narrative. His 2008 drama based on former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti Il Divo, for example, bucked biopic conventions by eschewing biological and historical context altogether in lieu of directorial virtuosity. Meanwhile, This Must Be The Place was a bizarre road picture starring Sean Penn as an aging rock star in which the eccentric journey was more important than the destination, while the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty is best remembered for it's gorgeous cinematography than anything resembling plot or narrative. To put a finer point on things, Sorrentino is so clearly enamored with Fellini that the term "Fellini-esque" is almost a coy joke since he makes little attempt at obscuring the homage. When it comes to Youth, the Fellini worship completely drowns out what could have been a poignant tale of aging in the modern world by overemphasizing formal artificiality to the point where the film becomes nearly catatonic.
The focus here is on a retired composer named Fred Ballinger (Michael Cane) and his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a struggling director attempting to write a screenplay with a throng of young writers which will be, as he puts it, his lasting "testament." Holing themselves up in an immaculate hotel/spa in the Swiss Alps, which incidentally, brings to mind the titular setting of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, the two aging friends reminiscence about past lovers, childhood quarrels, and decades-old regrets. During stretches where Cane and Keitel spend time at fancy breakfasts or inside luxuriant hotel rooms, one can sense the generosity of two actors with a similarly layered degree of experience enjoying each other's company. Unfortunately, Sorrentino's screenplay never allows grace notes in between the overly literal, metaphorical dialogue. Having his characters constantly announce their inner feelings and expound upon the film's themes, which are already heavy-handed to begin with, is a fatal mistake which makes the visually stunning filmmaking feel even more empty and facile. Other characters filter in and out; Fred's daughter (Rachel Weisz, burdened with arch monologues), a woman struggling with the recent infidelity of her husband, a pretentious American actor (Paul Dano) preparing to shoot a film in Germany, and even an overweight Diego Maradona slothing about flanked by a crackerjack PR team. The languid conversations between Fred and Dano's entitled thespian, meanwhile, are supposed to signify an acknowledgement of how both men are products of pop culture mythology, but there's never a moment in which we believe they are connecting as human beings. Maybe that's the point.
Certainly, the Fellini-esque nature of Sorrentino's style doesn't favor nuance, depth, or subtlety; but when it works, particularly in the misunderstood This Must Be The Place, the effect can be both aesthetically pleasing as well as emotionally resonant. Youth, however, is simply one rapturously eye-catching visual tableau after another, with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi doing yeoman's work with sweeping camera moves and dazzling compositions. The inherent impressiveness of the film's look, though, only exacerbates Sorrentino's unwillingness (or inability) to give us a prism into which we can see the pain and loneliness beneath the eccentric facade. But again, the inertia of senility and male-driven fantasy (women are seen largely as either sexual objects or docile mothers and daughters) may also be the point. Perhaps there isn't really anything noble or endearing about these two leering old men, despite the likeability of Cane and Keitel as performers. Maybe they are, after all is said and done, simply moveable pieces of decrepit furniture to be moved around like props within Sorrentino's immaculately designed reality.
Even Fellini, for all his concessions to whimsy and magical realism, found the emotional core of his characters and exposed hard truths within a societal framework. The failure of Youth to be anything more than a flowery postcard for stubborn masculinity is never more apparent than in a scene near the end where Jane Fonda shows up as a former Hollywood diva to expose Mick's delusional dream of making his masterpiece. Caked in makeup and a blonde wig, Fonda chews scenery with blustery abandon for no apparent reason beyond providing one of those big trainwreck moments that the Academy enjoys rewarding. Like all of the women in Sorrentino's shaggy drama, she's simply there to reinforce or derail the man's vision of himself. And so goes the film.