Sorrentino may be coasting a bit after making his masterpiece, but fans of his particular brand of filmmaking will devour the surface pleasures here.
If there is one word to characterize the aesthetic of Paolo Sorrentino, that word is “more.” The Italian director—a regular fixture at the Cannes film festival, whose last film The Great Beauty won him an Academy Award—tends to stuff his films with more ideas than can be taken in on a first viewing. But he’s far from a cerebral filmmaker; his images have a musical flow and polish that lead many critics to accuse him of being meretricious. Sorrentino’s new film, Youth, his second in the English language, may just be his most scattered yet. It is shorter than The Great Beauty, and lacks that film’s epic sprawl, but without a unifying protagonist to anchor its numerous diversions and flights of fancy, it doesn’t quite come together in the end, as enjoyable as it is on a moment to moment basis.
The film takes place at a luxury spa in Switzerland, which caters to a number of celebrity guests. These include lifelong friends Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired composer, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a renowned filmmaker working on a new screenplay. Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who’s also his assistant, is married to Mick’s son, who suddenly leaves her just as they are to depart on a vacation together. Meanwhile, Fred is fending off an insistent representative of Queen Elizabeth, who requests a performance of his most famous works, the “Simple Songs.” These plot points don’t give much shape to the film, which instead ambles along with the carelessness of Mick and Fred’s old-guy reminiscences, content to touch on a variety of topics without spending too much time on any. In the background, world-famous actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano)—whose admiration for the much older Fred is apparent in their easy, reflective conversations—is preparing a role, which sets up a broadly comic payoff.
It’s difficult to say whether Youth is really about anything in the end, but Sorrentino is such a compelling stylist, and the film is mostly light enough, that it’s hard not to be taken in. As usual, Sorrentino’s use of music—here, a mix of pop anthems, choral music and Mark Kozelek ballads—is impeccable, creating several entrancing sequences throughout. In addition to featuring Kozelek in the film as one of many performers on the spa’s rotating outdoor stage, Sorrentino commissioned new, absolutely gorgeous work from composer David Lang, some of whose earlier pieces were featured in The Great Beauty. It’s easy to guess early on that the refrain of a child’s violin working out the opening bars of “Simple Song #3” will eventually culminate in the real thing, but the piece itself is nothing short of stunning.
Of course, the film is primarily a showcase for the awesome cast. The nice thing here is that despite some awards buzz, these aren’t particularly showy roles. As in This Must Be the Place, Sorrentino’s great first attempt at English-language filmmaking, the characters tend to reveal themselves in sharp outbursts, but on the whole remain rather even-keeled. The result, for Caine and Keitel, isn’t the kind of self-conscious career-capping bombast we sometimes see from actors in their seventh and eighth decades, but simply the charm and presence of two of our greatest living screen artists.
Sorrentino may be coasting a bit after making his masterpiece, but fans of his particular brand of filmmaking will devour the surface pleasures here, of which there are many.