Deliver us from evil. Beholden to the shibboleth that people hear wisdom in the groaning sentimentality of aging men, Youth gets encrusted in its own snot. Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to his 2013 Oscar winner The Great Beauty represents no advance besides its makers’ new talent for spending dough. Exiled in a millionaires’ spa in the Swiss Alps, buddies Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel deliver Sorrentino’s English dialogue like oracles in Delphi. If ugly old dudes ogling naked women while imprisoned in terrible “poetic” images is your idea of kicks, Youth is your movie.
A comfortable denizen of what William Holden in Network would’ve called his autumnal years, Fred Ballinger (Caine) has lost interest in composing music. Even a emissary of the queen can’t persuade him to play his popular Simple Songs for Prince Philip. Yet every time he kneads a candy wrapper he finds a new rhythm, teases out a new melody. Wearing the awful plastic lenses he forced the world to regard as cool in the sixties, Caine is made up and directed to act like Marcello Mastroianni, Federico Fellini’s alter ego. He and best friend Mick Boyle (Keitel), a director of flagging powers trying to wring a viable project from writers, wander the spa taking in the sight of nude girls in pools. Paul Dano in Bowie blond hair appears on occasion, an actor worried his own career is washed up because he’s best known for playing a robot. Rachel Weisz as Ballinger’s daughter also has a role, apparently, and it’s a disgraceful one: left by her husband, Mick’s son, for a pop star, she aims vituperative monologues at Ballinger, blasting his self-absorption, what he put his wife through with his infidelities, and so on. “Extramarital experiences aren’t enough — you had to experiment with homosexuality too!” she cries.
But the wife forgave him. When men act like shitheels, it’s a woman’s job to forgive them. Once that’s out of the way, she can return to her proper role as muse. Jane Fonda, in a blonde fright wig and made up to look like Cruella de Vil playing Lana Turner, gets a cameo as the actress whom Boyle hopes to cast in his comeback. If the idea of Fonda saying “shit” a lot hits a weak spot, you might like the scene more than I did, but at least it’s the one time when another character kicks back at the nonsense. Youth is one of those movies whose blowzy ideas we’re supposed to accept because it looks beautiful. Which it doesn’t. The images of bovine old men slowly rotting amid the mountain flowers and air are among the least spontaneous examples of surrealism I’ve seen in a recent movie. It’s a hermetic experience, Youth, and a clammy one. Even the jeremiads are well-mannered. Unable to overcome the miscasting, Keitel has to deliver frequent dismissals of popular culture. “TV is shit,” he grows, as if were Elia Kazan in 1952. Again and again Sorrentino returns to this theme. The real men like Ballinger and Boyle once made art, the film says, until reality shows and Top 40 music made the likes of them obsolete. This rebarbative notion might at least get dismissed as the hissing of a crank had Sorrentino not shown or played Boyle’s crap script ideas and Ballinger’s noisome melodies, respectively. With art like this it’s no wonder the young prefer The Voice.
From its Magic Mountain setting to its fortune cookie aperçus, Youth also has pretensions to art. Maybe lines like “When you’re young, everything seems very close” and “I wonder what happens to memory as we get older” sound better in Italian. Keitel pries these lines out of his mouth as if with a crowbar. Caine’s familiar flatness of affect results in a querulous performance; it’s not clear whether he’s too old himself or he’s playing on Ballinger’s suspicions that he’s too old. I suspect “art” as Sorrentino defines it means still being able to get it up around girls. What’s left is a dopey and rather embarrassing film that — here’s the irony — advances an AARP or commercial advertising conception of old age. The market forces decried by Boyle and Ballinger infect the project. To watch a fine, brutal film about infidelity and advancing years, catch 45 Years when it opens near you. Leave the men of Youth on their damn mountain.