Hope I die before I get old. Or probably not.
At a fancy health spa located somewhere in Switzerland, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) walks around aimlessly, thinking about life, love and his career that he’s had. During one point in his life, Ballinger was a renowned conductor/composer who has, for personal reasons, lost the will to record, or better yet, live. Granted, he doesn’t want to kill himself, but he doesn’t really appreciate life quite as well as his dear best buddy, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), does. Boyle’s different from Ballinger in that he thinks that he’s got some of his best work ahead of him, which is why he’s currently stationed in this spa with four younger confidantes, working on what he pledges to be “a testament to cinema”. However, while together in this spa, the both realize that not only has life passed them by, but that they’ve also got to do something with the last couple good years of their lives they have left. This means that they do a lot more walking, talking, swimming, sun-bathing, and oh yeah, ogling at hot chicks.
Just as old men tend to do.
No matter what problems persist in Youth, there’s no denying that writer/director Paolo Sorrentino has an eye for beauty. Every shot in Youth, feels as perfectly calculated and put-together as you’d expect a Renaissance portrait to be, but instead of feeling as if he’s just being showy, it just somehow works and you get used to it. That Sorrentino set the movie, first and foremost, in the lovely countryside of Sweden, already allows for him to shoot any scene, whichever way he wants and it’s hard to take your eyes off. Of course, this is perhaps best seen on the big screen, but no matter what screen or aspect-ratio it’s seen on, Youth is a beautiful movie.
Which is a shame that it’s script is a bit annoying.
For one, a lot of the visuals that Sorrentino sets up here only seem to exist for the sole purpose that they’re metaphors and that’s it. While I have no problem with the visual-imagery here being displayed as shiny and bright metaphors, the issue with Youth is that the screenplay itself starts drive home the same kinds of points that the visuals are trying to get across, so after awhile, it just feels like over-kill. It’s almost as if the movie didn’t trust having a scene in which Michael Caine’s character went out into the middle of the woods and started imagining a piece of music he would create using only nature’s sounds to drive home the point of getting old and losing one’s mojo, that they had to have him constantly go on and discuss with just about everyone he comes into contact with.
And honestly, this wouldn’t have been too bad to listen to, except for the fact that what these characters all talk about, only serve one purpose and one purpose only: To preach. It’s hard to listen to characters talk about their own mortality and aging-process, when it seems like they’re reading free-form poetry; had more of the dialogue been a tad bit more naturalistic, the conversations these characters have probably wouldn’t have been so nauseating at certain points. It’s obvious from the very start that these characters are all going to be sad about getting old and realizing their time has come, but give us more reasons to care for that and not just go, “Oh, well it’s sad. But hey, look at this pretty bird and how Michael Caine so adoringly gazes at it.”
Perhaps less navel-gazing would have helped Youth in the long-run, but really, I’m not sure.
All I do know is that what Youth benefits from the most, aside from Sorrentino’s keen eye for detail, is that the ensemble here is just terrific. Of course, Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger to near-perfection, as it genuinely seems like he’s touched by this character’s willingness to keep his career on-halt, even though there’s much more demand for him to come back to the stage and continue making music. There’s one scene in particular that shows Caine’s true connection to this character, when he lets loose on why he doesn’t want to perform any of his old material for and in front of the Queen, and it’s quite emotional, but well-done as well. While not much of Youth is subtle, Caine still finds a way to peak underneath the cracks and slip a little piece of it every now and then.
While it’s weird to see Harvey Keitel being cast as Michael Caine’s best friend here, surprisingly, it works. Because Ballinger and Mick Boyle are so different in ways, it’s fun and interesting to hear them go on and on about their careers, their interests, women they’ve slept with, and their history together. It’s hard to imagine that Harvey Keitel and Michael Caine would ever sit down and have a fully-functioning conversation, let alone, be besties, but still, the two make it work and it was also nice to see Keitel dig hard and deep into a meaty role that we haven’t seen him get for quite some time. And yeah, Paul Dano shows up as a “serious actor” working in Switzerland, whereas Rachel Weisz plays Ballinger’s heart-broken and pissed-off daughter, and both do good work here and it’s nice to see them round it all out.
However, the one who probably walks away with the whole show, is Jane Fonda showing up in nearly two scenes as Brenda Morel, a friend and co-worker of Mick Boyle.
Though Fonda appears seemingly out of nowhere, she takes over the whole movie by showing that her Brenda Morel character is, most importantly, the exact kind of worker in the biz that Youth seems so obsessed with focusing on. Even though her best years have gone past her and, quite frankly, she’s holding on to her career and fame by a thread, Morel’s still trying to keep herself busy and relevant, even in a world that could probably care less about her. She won’t give up and won’t let anybody stand in her way, which is why her scene, while hilarious and exciting (something the rest of Youth really isn’t), is probably the most heart-breaking. Fonda’s terrific in this role because even though she gets maybe only 15 minutes of screen-time, she delivers us everything we need to know about this character, from the very first second we get with her, to the last and it’s hard not to stop and think about her when all is said and done.
Consensus: As pretentious as it can occasionally be, Youth still offers up some wonderful visuals, as well as a great couple of performances from both veterans and stars alike, that all give a little extra to the sad, but true message of the movie.
7 / 10