Few can construct a film quite as beautifully as Paolo Sorrentino, whose swelling, swooning The Great Beauty took home an Oscar just a couple of years ago for Best Foreign Film. His follow-up Youth is just as gorgeous; titillating the eyes with an endless array of images that will dance in the mind. Making only his second English-language effort after the misguided This Must Be the Place, Sorrentino's loose grip on American dialogue muddies what are surface examinations of his very familiar themes: age, regret, beauty, fame. Youth is too mesmerizing to be completely dismissed, but for all its overtures towards weightiness it's not the ideas that linger.
Michael Caine, made-up to look nearly identical to The Great Beauty's Tony Servillo, plays retired maestro Fred Ballinger, holed up in a breath-taking Swiss resort with his somber and recently-separated daughter/assistant, Rachel (Rachel Weisz). He's there with his director pal Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) who is there to finish a screenplay for what he hopes will be his signature film. The resort is populated with an array of colorful but ultimately forgettable characters. Paul Dano is an actor doing research on a mysterious new role that he hopes will make people forget the part he's famous for. There's also a fat ex-footballer lounging around the poolside, along with the newly-crowned Miss Universe. These characters don't get much to do; they're only there to serve as visual representations of subjects Sorrentino doesn't really want to explore. Case in point; Lena's husband recently left her for pop star Paloma faith, who gets the chance to play herself while demeaning everything about herself in the process. Seriously, she's mocked for her job and her looks throughout with nary a chance for rebuttal.
There isn't a ton that actually happens to move the story, such as it is, forward very far. Much of the film consists of Fred and Mick lounging around discussing their past loves, regrets, and future prospects. Mick is hopeful about his latest project, but that attitude may be a big mistake. Fred is occasionally requested by a royal emissary to conduct for the queen, which he consistently refuses for reasons that prove compelling and tragic. But the film languishes for far too long with little of note happening, mainly because its focus is split between these other characters we aren't interested in. It's best when Kaine, Keitel, and Weisz are center stage where they can be lavished by DP Luca Bigazzi's camera. Weisz gets one of the strongest scenes in the film when Lena finally unloads on her father for basically being a neglectful deadbeat. In her only scene Jane Fonda commands everything as Mick's muse; pulling no punches with her thoughts on his latest project. These scenes work mainly because they cut through the remorseful cloud that seems to hang over everything.
Keeping you completely out of the doldrums is the witty repartee between Caine and Keitel, two screen veterans who are clearly enjoying a chance to riff off one another and reflect on the past. And of course Sorrentino keeps the visual standards high, using the locale as a consistently breath-taking backdrop. He constructs images of such grace and beauty they can never truly be forgotten. They'll be recalled later when least expected, and will probably bring a smile to your face and the sudden urge to pop Youth in the Blu-Ray player. The film's final scene, best left undescribed, is one of those that will resonate even if the whole doesn't.
Rating: 3 out of 5