The senior characters in Youth are certain about who they are; their questioning, instead, involves reflection on how they’ve lived their lives and what kind of legacy they may leave behind. Like a Malick-directed Magnolia, writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s film is heavy on angst, observation, rumination, and regret, accented by moments of surrealism and spread across a large cast. Most of its characters—all guests at a grand hotel in the Alps—remain only glimpsed (albeit repeatedly) and largely unknown while the focus stays with Michael Caine’s Fred, a retired conductor, and Harvey Keitel’s Mick, a once-revered filmmaker who’s working on a new movie he refers to as his “testament.”
Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), is also staying there, but her character’s purpose is seemingly limited to reminding her father that he was a rotten dad and also serving as half of a fresh heartbreak. She was dumped suddenly by her husband, who happens to be Mick’s son. This configuration lends itself to discussion about parenting, naturally (Fred points out to Mick that he hardly remembers his family, and therefore the “tremendous” effort he made to give Lena happy memories was energy misspent) and what makes a lover worthwhile (the ex’s reason for choosing another woman is shockingly shallow).
Youth bounces in this manner from topic to topic, with emphasis on Queen Elizabeth’s insistent request that Fred come out of retirement for one concert and Mick getting nowhere with his film. Fred is also being prodded to write his memoirs, to which he responds, “I’m done with work. And with life.” Indeed, discussions talk about their careers and childhoods are given equal importance as discussions over whether either of the men urinated that day. “Let’s hope we take a piss tomorrow!” Fred says to Mick as they bid each other goodnight.
Sorrentino’s previous film, 2013’s The Great Beauty, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Youth whiffs of The Tree of Life pretension and sense that the helmer regards his creation as deeply insightful and important. There’s even a Shia LaBeouf-ian character in Jimmy (Paul Dano, an admittedly inspired choice), an actor who moans to Fred that no one cares about their serious work, only the brief period during which they indulged in “levity” (in Jimmy’s case, playing a robot in a movie, while Fred is beloved for his “Simple Songs” composition). It may seem as if Sorrentino intended this facet of his script as satire; that argument crumbles, though, when a young girl approaches Jimmy and offers astute observations about one of his non-robot films.
Youth continues leisurely and contemplatively in this fashion, with Sorrentino giving his characters plenty of time to stare off and look mournful. The plaintive musical cues, both instrumental and sung, are painfully obvious. The film’s most impressive achievement is its cinematography, with both the inside of the hotel and the outdoors shot beautifully and often with a lovely, painterly symmetry. But when, say, a monk levitates or Mick finds himself surrounded by all of his past leading ladies who repeat their lines until it’s a nearly horrific cacophony, you’ll find yourself wondering what it all means. Caine is as watchable as ever, while Keitel gives an atypically gentle performance that’s a welcome departure from a career full of badasses. But when Fred tells a doctor, “I’ve grown old without understanding how I got here,” you’ll feel similarly once the film’s closing credits roll.
Youth opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Cinema.