Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s movies are always filled with elaborate techniques to a sometimes overbearing effect, though never without purpose. From the isolated experiences of a tyrannical leader in the baroque “Il Divo” to the immeasurably quirky “This Must Be the Place” to last year’s spectacular foreign language winner “The Great Beauty,” Sorrentino’s filmmaking utilizes an operatic approach that refuses to slow down even when it gets overwhelming.
Nothing has changed in that respect: “Youth,” his latest and most broadly appealing comedy-drama, offers a spectacular excess of whimsical storytelling loaded with outlandish visual gags strewn throughout nearly every scene.
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.
Caine takes center stage as famous conductor Fred Ballinger, holed up for the duration of the running time at a classy resort in the Swiss Alps and shunning civilization. Sneering at an offer from the Queen to return to the British stage in the very first scene, he instead spends his days roaming around the resort and reminiscing about more productive times with Mick (Keitel), his filmmaker pal. Mick at least thinks he can still deliver, as he spends long hours at the resort trying to write his comeback picture with a team of young writers called “Life’s Last Day.”
For Fred, however, that day passed long ago. The gray-haired, wizened Caine is a natural fit for this world-weary role, which in physicality and attitude echoes Toni Servillo’s tired old journalist in Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” but Fred maintains a quieter demeanor and an air of earned elegance that Caine exudes on autopilot. Fred also has has more to appreciate about his current state, including the recurring company of his romantically troubled but supportive daughter (Rachel Weisz) and the opportunity to soak in the luxuries of the resort.
But even there he can’t fully ignore his fading stature, as Sorrentino highlights the composer’s fixation on a teen hotel masseuse and a much younger but already disillusioned movie star (an amusingly deadpan Paul Dano) to illustrate Fred’s vast distance from the titular state. Keitel is the ideal foil to Fred’s subdued mindset as he babbles about their more rambunctious former days and eagerly discusses his chances for a comeback. Keitel takes the role of a giddy, vulgar raconteur and turns it into a wonderful source of comic relief with more somber connotations.
Still, it’s Caine’s sunken features and muted delivery that guides the movie through familiar thematic turf. A logical continuation from “The Great Beauty,” Sorrentino’s script offers up more jaded creatives roaming around an ostentatious party zone to retreat their artistry rather than engage their potential. With its sweeping mountainside backdrop and canny satire of successful entertainers complaining about their prospects, “Youth” suggests Olivier Assayas’ Alps-set tale of performance anxiety “Clouds of Sils Maria” if it took a bath in eccentricity.
Though it never loses its edge as a shred rumination on the aging process, “Youth” wields an erratic grab bag of techniques, sometimes to the detriment of the material’s emotional appeal. Nonetheless, it remains bracingly cinematic from moment to moment. Aided by his ever-reliable cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, “Youth” unfolds with bright, high contrast colors in every frame elaborating on a spirited, expressionistic world.
Sorrentino lingers on bizarre, transfixing moments that thread various scenes together, beginning with an opening cover of Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love” delivered by a band at the resort from atop a moving platform in its lavish outdoor garden. That prologue marks one of several musical interludes, including one hilarious tangent that finds Fred sitting in a field and conducting the motion of cows with his hands, coaxing symphonic rhythms from their bells. Elsewhere, he repeatedly crinkles a candy wrapper in his hand, a tic that draws out the sheer aimlessness of his time as he attempts to unplug from the weightier dilemmas on his mind.
Despite the high style, “Youth” contains definite sentimental undertones — particularly as they pertain to Fred’s lost wife and somber daughter — that turn the movie into the director’s warmest effort by a long shot. Caine’s ongoing chemistry with his offspring, who’s been abandoned by her husband (also Mick’s son) and can only find respite in recalling better days with her supportive dad. Even there, however, the absurdity sticks around, since that situation gives rise to a hilarious dream sequence involving the Weisz characters’ new pop star lover.
No gentle moment lands without a reminder of the larger zany qualities that define the movie’s feel. Unfortunately, no matter the depth allotted to Fred and Mick, the movie shortchanges several minor characters and relegates them to punchlines. For every terrific sequence, there’s a minor aside, the kind of disposable padding that pushes the filmmaker’s genuinely thrilling craftsmanship into pompous territory. But the movie never ceases to surprise with new ingredients. Chief among them, Jane Fonda surfaces for a late-in-the-story monologue as Keitel’s fiery ex-collaborator, infusing fresh energy into the proceedings when they need it the most. She’s also the ideal reprimand to Sorrentino’s recurring fixation on nude female bodies roaming the resort, smuggling defiant feminist energy into the otherwise male-dominating plot.
With each new twist, Sorrentino is always one step ahead of his audience, building a narrative that skips along at an enthralling pace. When one character bemoans the possibility of expending “tremendous effort with modest results,” it’s almost as if Sorrentino is addressing his own worst fears. With its climactic performance, “Youth” argues that no amount of burnout can erase the satisfaction of talent reaching its potential. But “Youth” doesn’t just make that case; it’s a living example.
“Youth” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. Fox Searchlight will release it later this year.