Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Alex Macqueen, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, Mark Gessner, Roly Serrano, Madalina Ghenea, Luna Zimic Mijovic, Jane Fonda, Ed Stoppard, Paloma Faith
MPAA Rating: (for graphic nudity, some sexuality, and language)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 12/4/15 (limited); 12/11/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 10, 2015
Youth has a lot to say, and boy, does the movie ever say it. Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino wants us to know that he's fully aware his movie is concerned with Big Ideas, too. Sorrentino offers the character of an aged Hollywood director who is working on his final "testament" of a film—the culmination of not only his work but also his thoughts on life itself. As he works with his team of screenwriters, the director character complains that there is too much talking about philosophy and that they need to get to the heart of the story. Yes, it's also that kind of movie, in which self-criticism is presented as a way to beg forgiveness for its indulgences.
In between its many self-aware flourishes, the movie does find an affecting degree of truth in regards to its characters. There's a lot through which to dig in order to arrive at it, but it's there, nonetheless.
When Sorrentino allows his characters to speak of their lives and experiences without the artifice of reaching for some grand thematic design, the movie feels unflinchingly honest. These men, the director and his composer friend of 60 years, have regrets, and they aren't what we might expect from the two.
One is divorced, and the other has lost his wife of decades (The how of that situation is one of the movie's few blatantly dishonest revelations). They don't seem too concerned about their marriages, though. Instead, they wax nostalgic about a woman they both loved when they were younger—one with whom neither consummated any kind of romantic or sexual relationship out of respect for each other. "I would have given 20 years of my life to have slept with her," Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), the composer who suffers from self-described "apathy," tells his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), the director. "She wasn't worth 20 years," Mick responds. Surely, Fred contends, Mick didn't betray their agreement. "The tragedy," Mick replies, "is that I don't remember if I slept with her."
The big memories fade, and the smaller ones come into crystalline focus. That's the tragedy, too, and it's doubled for Fred, whose daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is with him on his vacation to a health spa in Switzerland (The locale and its surroundings are shot with vivid beauty by Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi). He doesn't recall his parents—their actions, their personalities, or even their faces. Meanwhile, he vividly remembers the thousands of things he did for Lena while she was a child. Now, he confesses to Mick, he knows that one day she won't remember those acts of love, just as he doesn't remember his parents. He will be forgotten one day, and that will be the end of it.
This cuts to quick of it all—memories of regret and regrets of memories lost. "I'm old," Fred tells a doctor at the spa, "but I don't remember how I got here." Scenes like these tell a story of some considerable weight, but they're not enough for Sorrentino.
The rest of the movie is a hodgepodge of intentionally half-formed ideas (Recall the line from Mick to his writers) and characters who exist on the fringes of this story coming into focus without much purpose. Much, for example, is made of Jimmy (Paul Dano), a successful and popular actor who is also vacationing at the spa while preparing for a role (another eventual revelation that exists solely to shock and that leads to yet another philosophical monologue). He has worked with the most esteemed directors in the business, but the only role of his that people remember is the one time he played a robot—a "single act of levity," as he puts it.
This apparently ties into Fred's most famous accomplishment, a piece entitled "Simple Songs" that the Queen of England wants performed for her son's birthday celebration (We know the connection between the actor and the composer's stories, because, of course, Jimmy states it). Fred refuses the offer from the Queen's emissary (Alex Macqueen) multiple times. He wrote the song for his wife, and she was only singer to perform it.
There are other people at the spa, as well: an overweight former soccer player (Roly Serrano), a young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) who plays a dancing video game at night, the Miss Universe contest winner (Madalina Ghenea) who gives the men an eyeful, and a mountaineer (Robert Seethaler) who woos Lena after she discovers that her husband (Ed Stoppard), Mick's son, has been cheating on her. One can sense Sorrentino attempting to impart great meaning in these characters as individuals and in the way they are connected without really having a connection. The latter is as far as these diversions go—disconnected tangents that only make us aware of how disconnected they are.
There's an air of superficiality to it all. It doesn't completely undermine the movie's bluntly honest moments, but it does keep them at a distance. Thanks to Mick and his writers, who are trying to figure out an ending to their opus but are stymied by what a dying man's last words should be, Sorrentino helpfully telegraphs his thesis for Youth. "Emotions are all we have," a character chooses as his final words. The sentiment is said, yes, but only occasionally felt here.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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