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'Youth' In Themes And Variations

Michael Caine as aging composer Fred Ballinger and Harvey Keitel as Mick Boyle, a filmmaker, play septuagenarian best friends in <em>Youth</em>.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Michael Caine as aging composer Fred Ballinger and Harvey Keitel as Mick Boyle, a filmmaker, play septuagenarian best friends in Youth.

Paolo Sorrentino is only 45, but the Italian writer-director is looking forward to looking back. His last four movies are journeys into the past, featuring actors and characters older than himself.

In the best of them, 2013's The Great Beauty, the protagonist is a weary veteran journalist whose apartment overlooks the Coliseum. In Rome, nostalgia has a long timeline.

Youth moves to a Swiss spa hotel that may not be that old, but is certainly old-fashioned. It's the favored getaway of retired British conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and longtime American pal Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director who's still working, or trying to. Their banter and reflections provide the heart of this charming if occasionally off-key etude.

With a crew of much younger collaborators, Mick is scripting his final testament, a movie solemnly titled Life's Last Day. Fred's only professional task is resolutely and repeatedly informing an emissary from Buckingham Palace (Alex Macqueen) that he will not conduct his best-loved piece, "Simple Songs," for the queen.

One link between the old men is that Fred's fragile daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick's son, Julian (Ed Stoppard). This becomes awkward when Julien dumps Lena for British pop singer Paloma Faith (playing herself in cameo that's part dream sequence, part inane rock video).

Two other characters represent younger generations. Soft-spoken American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is at the hotel to develop a new role. He's mostly bemused by life and work, yet resentful of the overshadowing success of a robot movie he once made. (Could Sorrentino be thinking of Shia LeBeouf?) Voluptuous Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) strides naked through the coed sauna, youth's erotic appeal in self-assured motion. She's not as unthinking, however, as the men stupidly assume.

Another sort of female power arrives in the form of glamorous but earthy Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), a veteran Hollywood star who still has the power to give life to a movie. The fate of Life's Last Day is in her hands.

Although Fred and Mick's stories each have payoffs, Youth is not exactly plot-driven. It's a series of incidents and asides, some of them whimsical. A Tibetan monk tries to levitate. An old couple eats dinner wordlessly every night. An obese former soccer star takes to the pool, revealing his massive Karl Marx tattoo. On a walk in the hills, Fred conducts an orchestra of belled cows in a concerto of moos and clangs.

Since the movie is a series of themes and variations, it's only natural that many ingredients are musical. The film opens with a cover band's rendition of Florence + the Machine's "You've Got the Love," and American troubadour Mark Kozelek (once of Red House Painters) hangs around the spa, strumming and singing. The score is by Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang, who also composed Fred's "Simple Songs," a lovely minimalist piece that doesn't sound like Elizabeth II's cup of tea.

There are a few misfires. Sorrentino's fascination with Nazis (explored in This Must be the Place) leads him to include a jarring historical reference, and Mick's final action is both arbitrary and melodramatic. The story would be more grounded if set in a layered real place, like Rome, rather than the fantasy stage-set of an isolated resort.

What bonds the movie's many, sometimes clashing elements is Caine's embodiment of the rueful yet accepting Fred. He can hardly deny the appeal of youth, but he's content to see the past as a mostly beautiful dream, now as foreign to him as Miss Universe's ageless body.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for reeldc.com, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.