‘Tremendous effort with a modest result,” says the old man to his old friend. He’s talking about raising children to adulthood, but the sentiment could just as easily apply to “Youth,” the ambitious but lackluster new film by Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino.
The old man speaking is Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a world-renowned composer currently stuck in a rut of apathy at a high-end Swiss hotel-spa. The old friend listening is Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director holed up at the hotel with a crew of hirsute young screenwriters, trying to forge a comeback. “Youth” is, among many other things, a lovely valentine to both Caine and Keitel, two performers who have seen it all and know what to do with it.
Sorrentino doesn’t “do” plot so much as rambling emotional-existential journeys, exquisitely shot and scored. His movies are an acquired taste: If you love the films of Federico Fellini, you’ll probably hate Sorrentino, who seems to throw all the good parts of Fellini into a blender and hit puree. But as much as his last movie, the foreign language Oscar winner “The Great Beauty” (2013), mulched “La Dolce Vita,” it also had a grandeur and sadness and energy all its own. (It’s a wonderful movie, and if you can watch it on Blu-ray, do so.)
“Youth,” which similarly has its way with Fellini’s “8½” (among other influences), is less focused and more banal, possessed of moments of great lyricism while indicating that Sorrentino is starting to repeat himself. The hotel — the Waldhaus Flims in the Swiss Alps — is host to a legion of colorful characters: a levitating Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk), an obese but agile soccer star (Roly Serrano), the most recent Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), an angry teenage girl (Emilia Jones), and so forth. These characters form a background matrix against which the aging composer and filmmaker mull the passage of the years, the women with whom they may or may not have slept, and the difficulty of taking a pee.
Caine’s Fred is an especially touching figure as he totes up his regrets with the assistance of his daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), whose husband (Ed Stoppard) is Mick’s son and has just left her for an unspeakably vulgar pop star (Paloma Faith, playing herself with cartoonish glee). Weisz gets off a fine monologue of fury over the way her father chased art and women (and a few men) his entire life, and it’s typical of the film that she and Caine are covered head to toe in mud for the entire scene.
You watch a Sorrentino movie for the bits where his crystalline eye for images (the cinematographer was Luca Bigazzi) and ear for music and sound come together in brief dances of intense emotional splendor: the Dante-esque Limbo of the spa’s steam rooms, a sequence in which Fred sits on a stump and “conducts” a field of cows. (Unfortunately, when we finally hear the composer’s Great Masterpiece at the end of the movie, it’s pretty terrible.) “The Great Beauty” was wholly about such moments and the importance and difficulty of sustaining them. “Youth,” by contrast, feels as though the effort is barely worth it. It may be the oldest movie ever made by a filmmaker under 50.
Still, approach it with lowered expectations and there are rewards. Paul Dano is wan but warmly touching as a Hollywood superstar preparing for his next role while hiding out at the spa; he becomes the old composer’s conscience and interlocutor on long walks in the Swiss countryside. There’s a graciousness to Sorrentino’s vision of human interaction that makes the smaller scenes stick with you longer than the big set pieces; in his world, redemption comes when you least expect it.
And just when the movie’s pulse seems to be flickering out, on comes Jane Fonda as Mick’s long-time muse, a viper-tongued showbiz diva under heavy hair and makeup. It’s a salty, rip-roaring scene — if not the Oscar bell ringer some are claiming — and it gives “Youth” a final rage against the dying of the light.
★ ★ ½
Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda. At Kendall Square. 118 minutes. R (graphic nudity, some sexuality, and language).