Paolo Sorrentino is our most restless chronicler of men stuck in ruts. You may remember his previous film, “The Great Beauty,” in which a once-brilliant author stalled out for decades in a vita that was a little too dolce for his own good. When asked why he never wrote another book, the dissolute, soul-sick protagonist shrugged and answered, “I went out at night instead.”
In Sorrentino’s “Youth” we’re following renowned classical composer Fred Ballinger. Deftly underplayed by Michael Caine, he’s so damn retired that not even a special invitation from Queen Elizabeth herself will prompt him to pick up the baton again. Stubborn Fred’s not working anymore. He’s barely even living.
For all intents and purposes out to pasture at a Switzerland luxury spa, Fred recedes into the background of scenes while bantering playfully with his lifelong pal, Mick. As played by Harvey Keitel with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Mick’s a director of art films on the downslope of his career. He’s holed up at the spa with a gaggle of film students, wannabe screenwriters at work on a magnum opus Mick claims will be “his testament.” Too bad it sounds terrible and they can’t come up with an ending. No matter, as the big-hearted Mick adores his young pupils, marveling at their energy and naiveté.
Sorrentino might be making a movie about two guys who are all out of ideas, but he certainly doesn’t have that problem himself. If anything he’s got too many for one movie, as “Youth” is fairly well overstuffed. “The Great Beauty” was a surprise smash in the States, earning the kind of grosses you never see from subtitled movies these days, and it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. “Youth” feels very much like one of those movies a director makes right after a huge success when everybody’s calling him a genius and nobody dares say no. There’s a reckless energy with which it lunges from one ga-ga visual flourish to another, consistency and coherence be damned.
The recessive Fred isn’t much of a character to build a movie around. Though we get a few hints at the tragedy that may have prompted his retirement, Caine’s mostly just reacting to other, wilder bit players in various states of distress. Fred’s daughter (Rachel Weisz) turns up at the spa after her husband runs off with international pop star Paloma Faith (playing herself!). The two aren’t exactly estranged, but there’s plenty of regret bubbling just under the surface of their relationship. Weisz gets a juicy scene in what becomes one of the film’s recurring motifs: woman calling out clueless men on all their presumptuous crap.
Also at the spa is an arrogant, pretentious American movie star (played by arrogant, pretentious American movie star Paul Dano) and a shockingly well-read Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea) who takes to skinny-dipping in front of Fred and Mick while the men try to pick their jaws up off the floor. Short on plot but long on scenes in which characters pontificate about the meanings of art and life, sometimes the dialogue in “Youth” is indistinguishable from the risible passages we hear from Mick’s “testament.”
Yet for all these flaws I still found the film terribly endearing. We don’t see nearly enough of Keitel these days and it’s a treat to watch him and Caine kick back with their grumpy old rapport. (The two are constantly talking about the woman who almost destroyed their friendship some 60 years ago, except now Mick can’t even remember if he slept with her or not. They also have trouble peeing and discuss it at great length.)
Sorrentino’s regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi shoots the spa in such gorgeously glowing hues that even scenes that don’t go anywhere are wondrous to look at. Much as “The Great Beauty” positioned itself as a sorta-sequel to “La Dolce Vita,” for “Youth” Sorrentino borrows the setting from Fellini’s “8½” and shares The Maestro’s penchant for grotesques.
And then after about an hour and a half, Jane Fonda shows up to knock the whole thing off its axis. Outfitted in a blonde fright wig and gorgon makeup, she’s the Hollywood mega-star Mick needs to get financing for his “testament,” and she has a few issues with the script. Fonda tears her way through a blistering monologue eviscerating Keitel, his films, their romantic history together and pretty much anything else in her path. She’s like Godzilla ripping down power lines in this film, one of those instantly iconic single-scene turns reminding you exactly why Jane Fonda is a screen legend.
Not to spoil anything but it’s basically a foregone conclusion that Caine will eventually snap out of it and start conducting again, which is fine. “Youth” is an enjoyable picture. But when Fonda stomps her way out of the movie I wished we’d been able to follow her.
Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth" is at the Kendall Square Cinema beginning Friday, Dec. 11.
Over the past 16 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at splicedpersonality.com.