I greatly enjoyed Paolo Sorrentino’s last feature, The Great Beauty (or, La grande bellezza), in spite of its overt debt to Fellini, a director I’ve never really gotten on with. That same devotion is also evident in Youth, marked as it is by a series of surreal interludes, culminating in moviemaker Harvey Keitel surveying a field of starlets (all very 8½). It also exhibits the kind of beautified, musically sumptuous, existential sogginess of recent Terence Malicks, however; there’s a desire to grasp at the flighty meaning of it all, whatever that all may be, and thus all it ends up revealing is the limits of its maker’s philosophy, that he feels inclined to gorge himself so thoroughly on something so insubstantial. It’s fast-food for the soul, immaculately presented but near-devoid of nourishment.
But in terms of eye candy (and I don’t just mean Madalina Diana Ghenea), Youth is irresistible, and Sorrentino, as in The Great Beauty, has an enviable skill for marrying image with sound to emotionally exhilarating effect. When I first saw the trailer, I thought this might be one of those codgers-on-the-way-out pictures, like a more edifying (it couldn’t be less) Euro-version of The Bucket List. Rather, however, it simply concerns aging friends, composer Fred (Michael Caine, with a luxuriant wig and a – relatively – plummy voice) and movie producer Mick (Keitel), ruminating for two hours at a Swiss health spa, fretting about the aging process as Sorrentino filters distractions through the lens of their mortal thoughts.
So we have Rachel Weisz as Caine’s daughter, who, in one of a number of strange (but not, to be honest, overly endearing) manglings of real and fake, has her husband run off with Paloma Faith (playing Paloma Faith, and incorporating a rather rum pop video sequence to that effect), Paul Dano as an actor who sits in awe of Caine and eventually dresses as Hitler (just, because; well, no, he’s considering playing Hitler, but really, just because), an obese Maradona (but not played by Maradona: rather, the aptly named Roly Serrano), the impossibly voluptuous Miss Universe (Ghenea) and a Tibetan monk (Dorji Wangchuk) attempting to levitate.
The warning of how facile this actually is comes early on, as Fred tells a Tibetan monk ‘You won’t fool me. I know you can’t really levitate”; it’s self-evident that, before the show is over, we’ll see him doing exactly that. And presto. Mick is surrounded by a coterie of Hollywood screenwriters offering solutions for the end of his latest project, but none of this larky “business” is really clever enough to be endearing; Woody Allen knocked off Fellini far more effectively in Stardust Memories, and even Jane Fonda appearing to tell Mick how he’s past it barely stirs attention levels, apart from her being made up like Joan Crawford.
Sorrentino appears to be forever set on emotional potholing, but having forgotten his flashlight, he never gets very far before he needs to resurface. There’s a trite metaphor about a telescope (when you’re young, you see everything really close, and that’s the future; when you’re old, you see everything really far away, and that’s the past), and an even triter one in which Fred is asked, “Do you know what awaits you outside of here?” before being told “You”.
But, despite the rudimentary script, it’s difficult to entirely resist this confection. While Youth is very obvious, it’s never mean-spirited, and it’s always feast for the eyes and ears. In its way, it’s as empty as your average Hollywood blockbuster, possibly more so, as it has unfulfilled pretentions towards deeper things, but taken purely on that surface level, it’s frequently exquisite.