The fact that Fox Searchlight picked up Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language effort “Youth” before it screened in Cannes was a tip that the film was both commercially accessible and awards-worthy. I am happy to report that the movie, set in a gorgeous Swiss health spa, is both hugely entertaining and should win multiple awards on the circuit for star Michael Caine.
He plays a retired and “apathetic” composer and conductor, called “maestro,” who is enjoying submitting to massages, ogling nubile naked women in the spas, and spending time with his daughter (Rachel Weisz), who takes out her anger on her father for being jilted by her husband for a younger pop diva who “is good in bed.” (Per usual, Sorrentino has fun with various visual divertissements, from a stream of nightly European performers at the spa and an open air concert with dairy cows and their bells to a splashy Paloma Faith music video and extravagant dreams.)
Maestro also hangs with a young Hollywood star (Paul Dano) who is prepping a role, and his close friend, a movie director (Harvey Keitel) who is conjuring up his latest cinematic “testament” with a group of young collaborators who throw around terrible ideas for how to finish the picture. (Their affectionate banter and philosophizing are the movie’s spine.) Also not in love with his script is his favorite movie star (Jane Fonda) who delivers a tour-de-force cameo.
Caine is dignified, emotionally vulnerable and sad; we feel for the sacrifices he made for his art and recognize his shortcomings as a husband and father. His moving performance should play well for festival juries, audiences, critics and year-end voters. The Academy, especially, will relate to this man’s struggle to come to terms with his work, family and what’s left of his life.
As seems the norm at Cannes this year, reviews run the gamut from raves to pans; sustained applause at the press screening was mixed with scattered boos. Delightfully, this movie does not pull back. Sorrentino pushes his heightened visual style all the way.
Regardless of different viewers’ tolerance level for that approach, however, one strength of “Youth” stands out as undeniable: Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, as a pair of strained artists approaching 80 and moaning about their dwindling prospects, enrich each scene with a higher calling. Ironically for a movie about men who miss the joy of creative triumph, “Youth” gives both veteran actors their best material in years.
The film may well have struck some viewers as too similar to Sorrentino’s past work for their taste, though admirers of the director’s operatic, visually extravagant style have come to expect such consistency. At the same time, it features meaty performances from Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel (among others), who were already generating talk of year-end awards potential after the screening.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, both at the top of their games, wonderfully carry this spirited look at two aging artist friends with distinctly different ideas about how to wind up their creative careers. Luring younger audiences to a film about mostly older folk at a Swiss spa will be a challenge, but a decent commercial career looks possible with critical support and a knowing distributor’s expert massaging.
There are brilliant flourishes here that could only have come from Sorrentino: superb swooping camera moves, grotesque faces and angular perspectives, and it always watchable. But it’s beset with Sorrentino’s occasional fanboy weakness for pop-star cameos — Paloma Faith appears here, playing herself and not earning her keep. “Youth” has a wan eloquence and elegance, though freighted with sentimentality and a strangely unearned and uninteresting macho-geriatric regret for lost time, lost film projects, lost love and all those beautiful women that you never got to sleep with.
An infinity pool of beautiful hogwash, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner “The Great Beauty” attracted jeers and cheers from the audience following its Cannes debut today. And also from me, internally, as a kind of running commentary throughout the experience of watching it. When everything operates as such a high pitch, when each successive scene feels like it’s a climax or a conclusion… early on you simply abandon the attempt to discern any sort of rhythm or flow or overarching meaning. But still those vignettes and images and hallucinations parade past your eyes like models preening on a catwalk, so it’s all you can do to sit in hasty judgement on each successive wannabe — Bravo! Boo! Boo! and so on.
The film is open to the type of criticism that Terrence Malick routinely receives (you know the one about glorious cinematography and paper-thin story). As with Malick’s most recent work, this film will shape itself according to what the viewer brings to it. Musings are scattered lightly across a serenely tempoed series of vignettes, where they can be examined for profundity or dismissed as trite.