In a film career spanning nearly sixty years, Michael Caine has proven two things: that he’s a charismatic talent, and that his skill and the credibility he lends are for sale to the highest bidder. “First of all, I choose the great roles,” Caine once remarked. “And if none of these come, I choose the mediocre ones, and if they don't come, I choose the ones that pay the rent.” Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Youth.
The latest exasperating film from Paolo Sorrentino (the overrated Oscar winner The Great Beauty) again demonstrates that the Italian filmmaker works on the abbondanza principle that more is more, especially when it comes to visual stylization. That’s great if you’re Federico Fellini, at whose throne Sorrentino kneels, but the writer-director of Youth doesn’t have the depth of character or field of vision to justify his indulgences. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste, and last I checked, The Olive Garden is still doing pretty good business with its $9.99 Never Ending Pasta Bowl®.
At any rate, Sorrentino installs Caine and Harvey Keitel as the filmmakers’ collective alter ego for another examination of man’s existential search for meaningful art and satisfying women. Caine plays resolutely retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger, and Keitel his BFF film director Mick Boyle. The friends have coordinated a stay at a picturesque Swiss Alpine spa, where people apparently assemble expressly to serve as dramatic foils to self-absorbed male artists. These people include young method actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano)—I guess the name Jimmy Sapling was taken; Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who suffers an embarrassing abandonment by her husband (also Mick’s son: awk-ward!); and Mick’s creative collaborators, identified in the credits only as Funny Screenwriter, Shy Screenwriter, and Bearded Screenwriter.
When they’re not trading Chicken McNuggets for the Soul (“Men, artists, animals, plants—[dramatic pause] we’re all just extras”), Mick attempts to write his “testament” film, while Fred fends off the Queen’s insistent request for a command performance of his “Simple Songs” (expect to see David Lang’s art song “Simple Song #3,” performed by opera singer Sumi Jo, on Oscar’s short list). Young, beautiful, and sometimes naked women stride around, including (no joke) Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), the better for Sorrentino nastily to contrast the grotesque Oscar-clip cameo by Jane Fonda, tarted up in Marilyn wig, caked-on makeup, and yet more of Sorrentino’s unbearable dialogue as Mick’s insufficiently grateful muse.
For a long two hours, Sorrentino flatters old white men, devalues women, and annoys with his lush coffee-table-book photography as he plays his own “Simple Songs” of frustrated old age and tantalizing youth, regret and disappointment, sex and love. “Desire,” muses Jimmy Tree. “So pure, so impossible, so immoral, but it doesn’t matter because that’s what makes us alive.” And bad movies make us retch, so keep that empty popcorn tub handy.