Film: Youth (2015)
Stars: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Song-"Simple Song #3")
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars
Il Divo, I hated it. I thought the movie was dull, listless, and at times confusing (it felt like one of those SNL sketches where everyone's wearing a wig and calling it an impression). To my great surprise, though, I ended up adoring The Great Beauty, his followup film that won the Best Foreign Language Oscar award and my OVP. So I went into Youth with great anxiousness, particularly considering my fondness for some of the actors (Caine, Weisz, Fonda) and disdain for some of the others (well, one of the others-Paul Dano). The film itself feels like it's being slightly cribbed from the same page as both of Sorrentino's previous films, in which an insanely rich man who lives in a sort of strangely sheltered paradise finds a crossroads, but unfortunately (despite some solid performances), it never captures the strange life force of The Great Beauty, feeling in many ways like an imitation that lacks the heart and completeness that comes with such a work.
(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Fred (Caine) as he lives in a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps, being looked after by his daughter/assistant Lena (Weisz). He spends much of his days being pampered and enjoying an insane amount of luxury relaxing, medical care, and spa treatments, while at night he sees random musical and stage acts amidst the glamorous but fairly vapid seeming crowd of wealthy spa goers. His most significant relationship, aside from that with his daughter, is with his friend Mick (Keitel), who is a longtime film director who is trying to create his "testament" picture, one that will surpass all of his other work. He also strikes up a friendship with movie star Jimmy Tree (Dano), who is tired of being associated with a specific blockbuster performance of his as a robot and wants to be considered a "true artist." Fred's life is thrown into chaos when an emissary of Queen Elizabeth II wants him to perform his "Simple Songs," the biggest hit of his career, for Prince Philip's birthday. Fred hasn't conducted in years, and initially refuses even if you know as the film progresses that he will acquiesce.
The film is not short on big ideas, and there's something commendable about trying to create something breathtaking (though the shots aren't as consistently superb as The Great Beauty, Youth is still in love with its cinematography and it occasionally shows). You see Fred, Lena, and Mick all encounter their own mortality, watching their lives and the way they have constructed them (along with their egos, as narcissism and its strengths/pitfalls is a critical component in the movie) be thrown asunder, with each handling failure in a different way. Asking larger questions of "what drives life" and "what should we allow to define us"-these are big questions, and ones that the cinema at its best occasionally answers. However, I felt like the movie wasn't prepared to handle these moments, or at least the script wasn't. Though we get loads of great soliloquies from all five of the main actors, they don't really interact with each other as much as just exist onscreen together, and the constant barrage of beautiful scenery is meant to feel more pretty than to tell its own silent film of a story (which was something I admired so much in The Great Beauty). As a result, we get fine acting mixed with a message that just can't cut it.
The acting is, of course, very good. Keitel, Weisz, and Caine all have excellent moments each, and even Dano manages to make me like him for the first time onscreen in eight years. Caine leaves Fred very unknowable, which is a risky choice, but we get the sense as the film moves on that he's less unknowable to the audience and more unknowable to everyone, including himself. He's lived his life without much thought toward his actions until much time after they had passed, and in some cases too far after they had happened. The final scene is a bit much (the "Simple Songs" feels a bit drawn out and not as iconic as it probably is meant to be), but Fred, finally giving in to the fact that time has past and in many ways moved past his era, sells it with his stern, defeated stoicism. Only Jane Fonda, in fact, really equals what he's doing here, but man does she sink her teeth into her role as a former movie star now reduced to side roles on television. Her monologue is the most damning, throwing not only Mick, her beloved former director, under the bus but herself and all of the entertainment industry. The way she dismisses film, and all of the men who try to continue their moment in the spotlight when it has passed, is cruel, jarring, and viciously accurate. Fonda's lighting has been criticized by the actress herself, but it's a great decision by the director to shine a garishness on one of the cinema's most beautiful actresses, pushing her in a way to show that continued survival is brutal and requires a nasty force. It's very late in the film and a small part, but for those who have been wanting Fonda to get the great role her comeback has so far been lacking should look no further.
Those are my thoughts on Youth, a film with great intentions that cannot deliver them despite a fine lineup of actors. What are yours? Anyone finding this their favorite Sorrentino picture? Is Rachel Weisz the most underrated actor currently working? Can Caine make it six-decades-in-a-row? Do you agree with Fonda's indictment on film in favor of TV? Share your thoughts below!