Plopped without fanfare into a mad, overstuffed holiday movie season, Paolo Sorrentino's Youth is refreshing, like visiting the idyllic Swiss resort and spa where it's set.
Like Sorrentino's Oscar-winning Italian language film The Great Beauty, Youth is a movie of dreamscapes and insinuated feelings, gorgeous and puzzling at once. The filmmaker can be considered a visual descendant of Federico Fellini, camera doting on erotically tinged fantasies. Even the grotesque is somehow sexy.
Not to mention the old, which is what Youth is about. Sorrentino's first film in English showcases two ripened actors speaking it well, conveying as much with the weathered faces alone.
Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a world class composer and orchestra conductor, retired since his wife died. Harvey Keitel co-stars as Mick Boyle, Fred's best friend for decades and a fading Hollywood filmmaker.
Each has business interrupting their stays. Mick is working on his comeback project, holding writer sessions at the majestic spa, which in Sorrentino's eye is practically a third lead actor itself. Fred is asked by Queen Elizabeth's emissary to conduct his most acclaimed composition for Prince Philip's birthday. He's refusing for personal reasons.
Fred's stance impresses Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a famous actor preparing for a new movie role. Fred's daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) isn't glad about it; just another bout of stubbornness from a father she seldom knew.
Much of the time Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi stroll the spa grounds, finding great beauty in everything; the architecture, choreographed activities, nature and the silent guests themselves, whose often surprising backgrounds are slowly revealed.
For example, a corpulent guest waddling with assistance and an oxygen tank, then signing autographs — why? The question is answered by another shot later, and confirmed with a lovely display after that. No words, only vision speaking clear.
Gradually Sorrentino's hypnotic effect wears thin, and his screenplay wanders by trying to focus on Jimmy's shocking role, Mick's desperation to get old flame and acclaimed actor Brenda Morel (Golden Globe nominee Jane Fonda) into his movie, and Fred and Lena's resolution.
Youth remains a visually luxurious experience, something like the nude Miss Universe whom Fred and Mick admire from across the jacuzzi, not lustfully — they're too old — but wistfully. It's tough deciding which side of the pool is more beautiful.