One way to get the most out of Youth, the new movie about memory, aging, friendship and loss from Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), is just to let its ravishing images and gorgeous soundtrack of Stravinsky and Florence & the Machine ooze over you. The sights are of the visionary, Fellini-esque variety: fire-eaters, naked bodies slowly descending into mineral baths, a levitating monk, an elegant couple who never speak in public but who secretly screw like ferrets in the woods, and a man “conducting” a private pastoral symphony of birds and cows.
The time is the present. The setting is a posh Swiss spa. The centerpiece role is that of retired octogenarian composer Fred Ballinger who, lounging indefinitely at the spa, appears too tired, too cynical, too something to even accept a request from the Queen of England to conduct his most famous work in concert as a birthday present for Prince Phillip. Michael Caine plays Ballinger sympathetically, with an air of resigned, lizard-like indifference and deep regret. Caine is beautifully matched by Harvey Keitel, who delivers his best performance in years as Mick Boyle, a longtime friend and romantic rival who’s also a film director. Boyle’s latest project, his final “testament” as he calls it, looks shaky unless he can nab the services of his favorite female star, played by Jane Fonda, who breathes needed fire into the movie in a single scene. Among other guests lolling in the sun, getting massages and taking mineral baths are Depp-meets-Downey movie star Jimmy Tree (an excellent Paul Dano), who’s suffering existential crises over being typecast in franchise movies, and Ballinger’s estranged daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz in great form) who’s undergoing marital woes with her husband (Ed Stoppard), who happens to be Boyle’s son. There’s also a knockout Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) who swims naked while the old geezers fantasize about her, and an obese and ailing retired soccer player (inspired by Maradona?) who dreams of his glory days.
You won’t find much more than the whisper of a plot in Youth, which is fine, but seriously, even the film’s wit, tenderness and beauty stifle after awhile. While Sorrentino’s infatuation with the masterful work of Federico Fellini — if The Great Beauty echoed La Dolce Vita, Youth dances around 8 ½ — is understandable, when the material is this thin, it feels as slick, shallow, and surfacey as Brian De Palma’s crippling obsession with Hitchcock. Youth has its glories, but it also feels like Sorrentino may be setting the stage for the something bigger, deeper and better. We’re waiting.