Watching Youth is like bathing in nothing but lush, luscious visuals. Moment after moment, as we explore the idyllic health spa where nearly the whole film takes place, I wondered: Do places like this even exist? It seemed too perfect. It was as if this character were stuck in limbo, left to resolve their imperfect pasts before moving on to the next world. In a movie filled with eccentric characters, the narrative path is definitely non-linear, the story is full of dazzling non-sequiturs, and the storyline is oddly cryptic. These characters are very much alive, some more than others.
Micheal Caine, a tremendous actor who for years and years has gone from one solid supporting role to another in Christopher Nolan films (The Dark Knight Films, Interstellar, Inception), gets a chance at playing the lead role once again, and he seizes the opportunity with understated magnificence. Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired composer of great renown on his annual retreat to this posh resort. By day, one can walk about the massive grounds, enjoy elegant dining experiences, have a relaxing massage, and enjoy hot-pool soaks during which a nude Miss Universe just might join the festivities. At night, there are all sorts of onstage entertainments, but the real enjoyment comes from the people watching. Fred’s fellow guests include his lifelong friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a director working on a script with a team of let’s just say, eccentric writers; a famous American movie star named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano); the pop star Paloma Faith (played by the pop star Paloma Faith); an odd-looking teenage masseuse with braces (Luna Zimic Mijovic); rounding out the guests is the morbidly obese Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano).
Fred is trying to get away from it all, but it seems the world manages to keep coming to him. The queen has sent her emissary (Alex Macqueen) to desperately plea for Fred to do a command performance of his legendary “Simple Songs” composition, but Fred refuses because he doesn’t want to share them with anyone. Fred’s daughter Lena ( Rachel Weisz), full of resentment because Fred was a terrible father, is heartbroken when her husband leaves her with no warning. What complicates matters is that Lena’s husband is the son of Fred’s old pal, Mick. For guys trying to get away from it all, they seem to be doing a terrible job.
Youth is filled with odd little subplots and surprises. We quickly learn that Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) is more than a vapid beauty contest winner. When we find out the role that actor Jimmy Tree has been prepping for, it comes off as quite a shock. Jane Fonda shows up late in the film as a Hollywood Starlet and is a force to be reckoned with as she seems to be well past polite conversation. At one point Mick has a vision where he sees the actress that he claims to have discovered, in her element delivering wonderful lines. At first, it’s a beautiful delusion that quickly morphs into something odd and extremely chilling.
Paolo Sorrentino is an extremely talented director with a grand vision. It’s easy to forget but this is the same director who gave us The Great Beauty which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film. His cinematographer Luca Bigazzi manages to take what on the surface looks like a pedestrian shot and turn into something special. Whether it’s a simple scene in the hotel, a dream sequence involving Fred and Miss Universe, or an overweight soccer legend huffing and puffing on the tennis court as he kicks tennis balls into the clouds, the visual artistry will keep the audiences engaged throughout the film.
What audiences will take most from Youth is the sensational performance of Micheal Caine. Caine’s work conveys such a deep sense of vulnerability that we bear witness to the pain manifesting in his eyes. His is the emotional backbone of this film. It certainly one of the best performances we have seen from Micheal Caine in recent years, and the type of performance that will likely draw the attention of award voters.