We only ever told each other the good things.
I’m on record as loathing Sorrentino’s last movie prior to Youth, The Great Beauty. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film the year it came out and it was also my pick for worst movie of the year. I gave it a vicious review and a rating of 0 stars. But I couldn’t convince myself to stay away from this movie, based on the cast. And, on the whole, I’m glad I didn’t, I suppose. It’s a deeply flawed movie and it plays, in some ways, to Sorrentino’s worst tendencies. The Great Beauty was essentially the story of Wild Strawberries told in the fashion of La Dolce Vita. This time, he’s shaken things up. Youth is essentially the story of Wild Strawberries told in the fashion of 8 ½. Well, whatever.
Almost the entire movie takes place at a luxurious health spa, much like the one in 8 ½. Like that one, this spa is a place where people are seeking rejuvenation of the soul, not of the body. Michael Caine is quite brilliant as Fred Ballinger, a retired composer/conductor struggling to relate to his daughter and to deal with the emotions brought up when the Queen of England requests that he come out of retirement to conduct one last time. Rachel Weisz is, for my money, career best as Ballinger’s daughter, a woman reeling from divorce; she’s broken, vulnerable, but unable to give up. She’s nothing short of brilliant. Harvey Keitel is also fantastic as a writer/director that’s taken up residence at the spa in order to write the screenplay for his next film. It’s Keitel working at a level we haven’t seen from him in a very, very long time. I would put up his final scene in the film as maybe the best acting he’s ever done. Paul Dano is also quite good as a young actor seeking solace from his stardom at the spa and Jane Fonda has a very small cameo (essentially just a one-scene role) as an aging actress from Keitel’s past. The scene between Fonda and Keitel is one of the best in the entire film.
This is all sounding really positive, I know, and, given The Great Beauty, this is kind of a rave review from me. This film has a lot of Sorrentino’s weird tics; he likes to throw in surrealist images for no real reason, he likes to just freeze everything for long, long camera movements and he likes to think he’s funny. There’s a music video spoof here that is absolutely cringe-inducingly bad and there are moments when the surrealism just crosses the line and stops being interesting and just becomes stupid, as in a horribly wrong-headed scene where Keitel’s character is confronted on a hillside by the female characters from all his previous movies. The less said about a scene where Michael Caine has to conduct a flight of birds and a herd of cows in making noises the better. And it unfortunately doesn’t really know what it wants to say in the end, so it takes the easy way out by ending with an artsy, surrealistic montage that doesn’t add up to a damn thing. It’s too long and too high on its own wisdom to ever be anything approaching a masterpiece, but, unlike The Great Beauty, this film takes significant time to focus on the pure emotions of human relationships and the script has a few really beautiful moments in those scenes. And, while I hate to impugn the entire cast of the Great Beauty, the movie also “won” my awards for Worst Female Performance, Worst Male Performance and Worst Ensemble the year it came out. But this film features some real masters working at very high levels. Just for getting Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano all in a single scene, this movie deserves a lot of leeway; even when the script is trite or the movie is being silly, the performers are a pleasure to watch. If I was giving this star rating to another film, it would be a really negative response, but when you consider that Sorrentino previously directed one of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life, I think I have reason to feel good about this rating. Two-and-a-half stars isn’t all that great, except when it’s a step up from 0 stars. Maybe there’s hope for this guy yet. 2 ½ stars.
tl;dr – Youth showcases many of Sorrentino’s worst tendencies, but a sometimes insightful script and a quartet of brilliant lead performances elevate the film substantially above his other work. 2 ½ stars.