As I was bathing in the lush and gorgeous visuals of the idyllic health spa in the Swiss Alps where nearly all of “Youth” takes place, I would occasionally wonder:
Is this for real?
As in, is this actually, physically, a sprawling hotel/spa/rehab center that exists in the real world of the film, or are the characters dead — stuck in some kind of beautiful but limbo-esque afterlife, left to confront their jagged and imperfects pasts before moving on to the next world?
Though stylized and eccentric and non-linear in its narrative path, and filled with dazzling non-sequiturs and oddly cryptic storylines, Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” is indeed set on this Earth, and these characters are very much alive. Some more so than others.
Michael Caine, a great actor who for years has bounced from solid supporting work in prestige projects (the “Dark Knight” films, “Interstellar,” “Inception”) to forgettable nonsense (“The Last Witch Hunter,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”), gets a full-fledged lead role here, and he seizes the opportunity with understated magnificence.
Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired composer of great renown on his annual retreat to a mysterious and posh resort nestled near the Swiss Alps. By day, one can walk about the expansive grounds, enjoy relaxing massages, dine in elegant style and enjoy hot-pool soaks during which a nude Miss Universe just might join you.
By night, there’s all manner of onstage entertainment, but the real enjoyment comes from the people-watching. Fred’s fellow guests include his lifelong friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a director working on a script with a team of goofy writers; a famous and troubled American movie star named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who resents being best known for playing a robot in a big commercial hit; the pop star Paloma Faith (played by the pop star Paloma Faith); a teenage masseuse with braces (Luna Zimic Mijovic) and a morbidly obese Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano), who was once the world’s greatest soccer player.
Fred has come to the retreat to get away from it all — but the world keeps coming to him. The queen’s emissary (Alex Macqueen) desperately pleads for Fred to do a command performance of his legendary “Simple Songs” composition, but Fred refuses for a reason he doesn’t want to share with anyone.
Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), simmering with resentment because Fred was never around for her, is heartbroken after her husband left her without warning. (Complicating matters: Lena’s husband is the son of Fred’s old pal Mick.) For a guy who’s retired, Fred has a lot on his plate.
“Youth” is filled with strange little subplots and surprises. Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) is more than a vapid beauty contest winner. When the actor Jimmy Tree reveals the role he’s been prepping for, it’s a darkly comedic shock. Jane Fonda shows up late in the film as a grand movie star who is well past the point of polite conversation.
At one point Mick has a vision in which he sees all the actresses he claims to have discovered, all in costume and in character, all reciting memorable lines. At first it’s a beautiful delusion, but it morphs into something chilling and disturbing.
The Italian Paolo Sorrentino is a seriously talented director with a grand vision. (His “The Great Beauty” won the Academy Award for best foreign language film.) His regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi contributes stunning visuals, whether it’s a simple scene of hotel workers getting ready for their shift, a dream sequence involving Fred and Miss Universe, or the aforementioned overweight soccer legend huffing and puffing while kicking a tennis ball into the clouds, over and over again. There’s hardly a pedestrian shot in the entire movie.
Occasionally “Youth” seems to be spinning its wheels — more concerned with introducing yet another oddball character or delivering another admittedly gorgeous visual at the expense of getting back to the characters we really care about, namely Fred and Mick. It’s a lot of movie squeezed into one movie.
Yet how much better is it to experience a film overflowing with so many elements than one that has to stretch its content just to get to the finish line?
Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R (for graphic nudity, some sexuality, and language). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.