Sprawling, surreal and colourful (my filmcrit 101 thesaurus suggests ‘Felliniesque) Youth is set in a super-plush, beyond five star, luxury hotel-slash-spa-slash-retreat in the Swiss Alps. A variety of characters enter into the orbit of two elderly friends, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) a retired composer and conductor and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) a less retired film director. The two men have known each other for so long that their rambling philosophical conversations revolve around two main subjects. Their inability to remember if Mick slept with a woman Fred coveted in their youth, and comparing prostate issues.
Mick is staying in the hotel with a team of young screenwriters attempting to complete the screenplay for what he hopes will become his magnum opus (a film about death). Fred is staying with his daughter and assistant (Rachel Weisz) trying to ignore the world but annoyed by visits from a Royal Envoy (the ever amusing Alex Macqueen) attempting to persuade him to conduct a Royal Command Performance.
Ballinger is the central figure in the film, but is a passive protagonist. His melancholy a loose theme that binds director Paolo Sorrentino’s sweet mess of a movie together like the cream in a dirty Pavlova. When his daughter’s marriage (to Mick’s son) spectacularly implodes, long repressed personal issues between these characters come to light. This simple story is embellished by a procession of characters with whom Fred and Mick have contact, some fellow guests, some hotel employees. Among them is a young American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) researching a role, the newly crowned Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), and Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano).
Sorrentino is prone to sudden flourishes of surrealism, deliberately mixes cameos by actual celebrities (if you consider Mark Kozelek a celebrity), with simulation (Maradona played by a look-alike), and even allows the actors playing roles to subtly reference their real selves. One sequence seemingly invokes the spirit of Ken Russell with a riotous explosion of garish religious imagery (I am all for the Invocation of the Spirit of Ken Russell, I think it should enliven any movie).
Caine and Keitel are excellent playing outside their usual range. Caine is often cast to essentially play Caine; Ballinger is a very different kind of character with a very different background to the actor. Caine hasn’t been this good since John Crowley’s Is Anybody There? Keitel is given a break from being Bad Lieutenant to play a cultural sophisticate. Both actors convincingly feel like life-long friends.
Weisz and Dano are good in supporting roles. Weisz’ secondary plot as her character moves past the trauma of husband’s infidelity starts out creepy and then turns tender and moving. Dano’s super cool actor is a million miles away from his more familiar weasel persona. There is also a late cameo (not a spoiler. Her image is featured prominently on the poster) from Jane Fonda so arch it should be the frontage of a Gothic cathedral.
It doesn’t all work. A subplot dealing with very young prostitute is completely ridiculous. The escort is a gawky and nervous teenager with unfashionable glasses, dropped off each morning by a mournful ‘Madame’ who may be her mother. This is Switzerland, not a third world country. I may not have stayed in a lot of super exclusive resorts (or in fact any) but while I’m sure they have escorts on hand. I doubt they fit this scenario. Even in a surreal film, this felt like a step too far.
As messy and all over the shop as Youth is, it has significant charms. It is gorgeous to look at, the stars are on great form, and it is frequently very amusing (including a superb football joke). The good humour is tempered with a deep melancholy and the atmosphere is punctured by moments of genuine pain.
The film teases passages of Simple Song #3 a piece Ballinger composed for his wife and a favourite of Prince Phillip (“It’s all he listens to” pleads the Royal Envoy when attempting to get Ballinger to agree to conduct for the Queen). Throughout the film, we are told that it is a masterpiece and Ballinger’s defining work. So no pressure on composer David Lang. Yet when finally performed the Oscar nominated composition does not disappoint. I frequently baffled by the Oscar’s bland best song choices but not in this instance.