Youth (2015)

Posted by Joel Copling on January 7, 2016

"Youth" reckons that aging is a process of three differing stages, especially as one reaches his or her twilight years. There is the composer who no longer writes or conducts because the love of his life no longer has the psychological will or emotional understanding to perform. There is the composer's daughter, who has received a heavy emotional blow just before what was to be the trip of her life. There is the washed-up filmmaker who is preparing his final screenplay for the delight of working with his muse one last time. There is the Method actor, who is trying to escape from his most popular role by taking another, more controversial one (and there is a third in the wings by the time the credits roll).

This is the quartet of characters on whom writer/director Paolo Sorrentino relies, and they are, each of them, given a world of depth to untap. It's apparent in the very inflection of Fred Ballinger's (Michael Caine, devastating as a man healthy "as an ox" on the outside but with turmoil and, perhaps, senility settling within) voice as he, the composer, speaks to the Queen of England's emissary (Alex Macqueen, very good in a small but potent role) when he comes to propose that Fred conduct and direct one of his "Simple Song" compositions for which he is (to his chagrin) most famous. "Personal reasons," which we learn in a particularly affecting exhibition of emotion bubbling underneath a surface ready to explode, prevent him from accepting the challenge, much to the bewilderment of the emissary, who risks embarrassment if he returns more than once with a negative answer.

It's apparent in a heated monologue from Lena (Rachel Weisz, good-hearted and kind, which makes the character's shift all the sadder), Fred's daughter, who blows up about his treatment of her mother and mourns the fact that her mother played along. She has been planning a two-week trip with her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard) but receives a shock that inspires a sort of implosion of tears and sobbing when the man falls for pop star Paloma Faith (appearing as herself in a clever bit of self-deprecation). She returns to the hotel/rest-home in which Fred has found his life of solace and quiet in disgrace and unreality, falling for a rock-climber who is kind to her.

It's apparent in the attempt by Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel, determined but weary of a world that has forgotten him), the director, who is currently writing his twentieth and final film with a group of screenwriters (played by Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, and Mark Gessner), all of whose contributions are far too banal for the filmmaker. He'd rather focus on the fact that it is everything to which his career has been building, but unfortunately, it may not be enough. Even his muse, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda, lighting the screen on fire with only one scene of dialogue and another brief appearance), is leaving him for the future of television (An interesting and amusing detail is that the role is one on a program that might have cult appeal and that takes place in New Mexico).

It's apparent in the way Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, perhaps the best in a cast that has no weak spots), the actor, is trying to get away from his past by taking whatever role removes him further from reality. In a bit of sour irony, he is a performer who applies that reality a little too heavily to his roles--to the point of disappearing into them entirely, as his appearance changes drastically thrice throughout--but whose career is haunted by a role that required him to wear a 200-pound, metal suit and provide a funny voice as a robot. Nearly everyone, including the most recent Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), asks him what it was like to play such a role, but when one young girl comments on his most obscure role, that he is moved beyond words shouldn't be surprising.

Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi capture the hotel as an insular universe of precise symmetry and the world around it as one of vibrant color. There is also a patience to Cristiano Travaglioli's editing which keeps time with Sorrentino's contemplative camera movements in the moment but transitions between sequences with chaotic grace (Montages are a cavalcade threaded together by some pretty stunning imagery). These are lives in both permanent and temporary stasis, and "Youth" is an exceptional study of aging as a period of withering regret, of impatient silence, and perhaps most affectingly of all, of those final crucial steps that act as a testament and a testimony to one's life.

Film Information

Michael Caine (Fred Ballinger), Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle), Rachel Weisz (Lena Ballinger), Paul Dano (Jimmy Tree), Alex Macqueen (Queen's Emissary), Tom Lipinski (Screenwriter in Love), Chloe Pirrie (Girl Screenwriter), Alex Beckett (Bearded Screenwriter), Nate Dern (Funny Screenwriter), Mark Gessner (Shy Screenwriter), Roly Serrano (Diego Maradona), Madalina Ghenea (Miss Universe), Luna Mijovic (Masseuse), Jane Fonda (Brenda Morel), Ed Stoppard (Julian), Paloma Faith (Herself).

Directed and written by Paolo Sorrentino.

Rated R (graphic nudity, sexuality, language).

118 minutes.

Released in select cities on December 4, 2015.