Youth review – life and death as seen from a luxury hot tub

In Paolo Sorrentino’s beautiful but underwhelming drama, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are a pair of old friends steeped in ennui and torpor during a spa break in Switzerland

This new film from the Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino is an entertaining but minor work, another of his angular, intensely controlled comedies of manners, this one forever breaking into bizarre, new-realist tableaux of ugly people in various states of undress. It’s the kind of stylishness that risks depleting substance and, like his other English-language film This Must Be the Place (2011), it is eroded by Sorrentino’s weakness for rock star cameos. Just occasionally, it feels like a 124-minute Rolex commercial. But there is always such superb poise.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star in Youth – video

When I first saw Youth at Cannes last year, I wondered if the title had hints of Tolstoy or Conrad. Actually, it’s more likely to be a satirical echo of Mussolini’s sinister anthem, Giovinezza, praising the young fascist rank-and-file (“Giovinezza, giovinezza, Primavera di bellezza, Per la vita nell’asprezza, il tuo canto squilla e va!” – “Youth, Youth, Springtime of beauty, In the hardship of life, your song rings and goes on!”) Sorrentino’s movie complains about the terrible tyranny of youth, the fascist-worship of beauty and celebrity and success. And about two thirds of the way through, a young actor appears in full makeup and costume as a certain historical figure who in his youth was one of Mussolini’s most devoted admirers.

The film is comparable to Sorrentino’s previous work, The Great Beauty, in that it is about the brevity of life and the fear of death. Two rich, successful old guys are steeped in ennui and torpor during a spa break at a Swiss resort in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings. One is Fred Ballinger, a legendary English composer, currently being badgered by a Buckingham Palace aide to conduct a royal command performance of his Simple Songs, an early, popular composition that he now finds tiresome. Ballinger, played by Michael Caine, is a former director of the Venice Symphony Orchestra and the city is the scene for a superb flashback hallucination.

Fellow guest … Rachel Weisz in Youth.
Fellow guest … Rachel Weisz. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito

Harvey Keitel plays the other, Mick Boyle, an ageing movie director working with increasing desperation on a lachrymose film entitled Love’s Last Day that he hopes will be his legacy. But funding is dependent on casting his former leading lady, Brenda Morel – a terrific cameo from Jane Fonda. Fred and Mick are old friends, further bound by the fact that Ballinger’s beautiful daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) is married to Boyle’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard). As they lounge about the place, indulging their macho-geriatric self-pity and lamenting lost youth and missed sexual opportunities, they exchange idle conversation with a fellow guest, conceited young Hollywood star Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). They also hopelessly lech over the recent Miss Universe winner (Madalina Ghenea) who likes to get naked in the hot tub, while they happen to be in it. Their futile lust is just another reminder of death.

Terrific cameo … Jane Fonda.
Terrific cameo … Jane Fonda. Photograph: Courtesy Of Fox Searchlight/Gianni Fiorito

Visually, Youth is as arresting as anything Sorrentino has done, and the images he conjures up are often wonderful – particularly his gift for faces: startlingly strange and sad, ugly or beautiful. I loved Fred’s masseuse, played by Luna Zimic Mijovic like a gawky Mona Lisa as she pulls and pokes impassively at his leathery old limbs and later rocks out to Nintendo Wii’s Just Dance in her own room.

Fred and Mick have an enjoyably cantankerous way of whingeing together, like Statler and Waldorf, worrying incessantly about whether they are going to be capable of urinating on any given day. They are amusingly like Alec Baldwin’s character in Nancy Meyers’ comedy It’s Complicated, with prostate issues, and dependent on a drug brutally named Flomax. However, it is less convincing and less interesting when Mick is assailed with visions of all the leading ladies he has ever worked with, surreally dotted like waxwork animatronics all over the vivid green hills. This sub-Fellini touch feels indulgent and sugary.

Watch a video review

Caine himself brings a languid hauteur and inscrutability to the part. It may be that Sorrentino originally conceived this role for his usual leading man, the Italian star Toni Servillo. That casting can easily be imagined. But Caine’s droll intonations and stillness make him highly watchable: at a couple of stages reading The Guardian, glancing at a piece by my colleague Rowena Mason on foreign aid. Youth is an elegant, wan exercise from Sorrentino, but brilliant and passionate movies such as The Great Beauty and The Consequences of Love show he is capable of more than this.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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