Film Review: Youth (USA, 2015)

Visionary Director Paolo Sorrentino gives us one of his most universally appealing and accessible works to date with Youth, calling upon the ageless talents of Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel and a scene-stealing Rachel Weisz, to deliver a fascinating, surreal – almost absurd – exploration of legacy, loss, wisdom, memory, and cynicism. Set exclusively in and around an antique Swiss property, the story is a contemplative trail left by retired composer, Fred Ballinger (Caine), who has been coming to the same resort for more than 20 years, almost as if he’s trying to escape his own legacy, which brims with legendary orchestras in London, Venice, and New York.

Alex MacQueen plays a Buckingham Palace emissary who hilariously begs Ballinger to conduct his most famous piece, “Simple Songs”, for the Queen. This takes place at the very start of the film, spotlighting Ballinger’s rigid insulation by having him reject the request for personal reasons – which are revealed later in the film – and swiftly dismiss the emissary.

Fred’s old friend Mick Boyle (Keitel) is also a frequent visitor to the resort, where he works with a young group of writers in an attempt to finish a film titled “Life’s Last Day”. Both men are aging hermits where the world is concerned, with Fred especially closed off to almost everyone except his daughter, Lena (Weisz) who is married to Boyle’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard).

A slightly awkward cameo from Paloma Faith breaks up the bond between Lena and Julian, ushering in Faith’s self-aware parody which is only really saved by Sorrentino’s surrealistic, nightmarish, and quite random, music ditty that’s inserted as one of several off-kilter distractions that break up the narrative with flashy and bizarre, but always beautiful, moments.

There’s a natural, nihilistic camaraderie between Caine and Keitel which makes their scenes together so enjoyable to watch, but Weisz deserves special mention here as she handles a distraught Lena, juggling a range of emotions that lead to her chastising her own father for his supposed selfishness and lack of sentiment, before getting a mouthful right back, slipping into the shadow cast by Caine’s unrestrained defense of his character, delivered with an impactful speech about children not being able to properly consider their parents.

Often, Sorrentino can get caught up in his own technical wizardry and stretch Youth a little too far, but whenever he lifts high, the cast are right there to ground him with their own mastery, from the leads to the smaller roles, delivered by the likes of Paul Dano, who plays a cynical actor, and Jane Fonda, who plays an arrogant actor. These seemingly random cameos give Sorrentino more fuel for his fiery sense of experimentation; they also allow different strands of humour to flood into the film and keep it engaging at times when even the acting starts to lose some charm.

You may get splashes of Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel from Youth, Sorrentino unafraid to venture into absurdism with grand, intoxicating ideas that unfold in stunning fashion. Like all Sorrentino films, the visuals are sumptuous and often take precedence over plot, forcing the narrative to indulge the Director by swerving in unconventional ways, risking a tear in cohesiveness which is, again, held together by the actors.

A lot of narrative progressions occur towards the very end of the film, all leading to one of the most beautiful moments captured on film this year, driven by Sorrentino’s love for music and appreciation of how much emotion can be conveyed with each note.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Running Time: 124 minutes

Youth releases in Australia on Boxing Day, December 26th, 2015