A fairly routine contemplation of aging, Youth spends its opulent and repetitive time circling the contours of an elderly man’s worldview. He is Fred (Michael Caine), a retired composer and conductor who is staying at a luxury hotel and health spa in Switzerland’s picturesque countryside. The views are fantastic, the amenities deluxe, and the guests an odd collection of minor celebrities and assorted weirdoes. Diagnosed by his daughter (Rachel Weisz) as perhaps incurably apathetic, he spends his time going for long walks, sitting in hot tubs, getting massages, chatting with strangers, and hanging out with his oldest friend (Harvey Keitel), a filmmaker holed up with a bunch of doughy young writers hammering out a script for his next project. Director Paolo Sorrentino conducts these happenings in endless cyclical loops, through recurring discussions, discursive cuts to tableaus of other guests’ activities, and lyrical juxtapositions. It’s visually robust, but intellectually thin, as hypnotic and it is tiresome.
Caine brings an air of exhaustion to his performance as a man who has had a long and interesting life, but now finds himself preoccupied with what he’s lost, what he can no longer remember, what he hasn’t the energy for. In an obvious metaphor, Keitel has a younger colleague look at a mountain through a telescope. “It seems so close,” she says. (Never mind why she seems surprised by how the device works, I suppose.) That’s what it’s like to be young and looking to the future, he says, before asking her to look through the wrong end of the telescope. That, he says as if he’s brilliant, is being old and looking at the past. They’re always looking back. The old men wander the grounds of the resort discussing old memories, contemplating mortality, worrying about their legacies, and people watching: speculating about a mute old couple, staring at singers and mimes, and ogling pretty young women. (It’s Europe, so naturally portions of the spa are clothing optional, a fact on which Sorrentino certainly loves to linger.)
We’re trapped in this mindset of enfeebled masculinity, two old friends shuffling towards the end. Even the relatively younger characters seem burdened by the aging process, pained beyond their years – Weisz’s daughter character facing a bad breakup, a famous actor (Paul Dano) wishing he could do more important work. It’s all part of the creaky fog, the psychologically stifling connection to a vision of the world that’s more than a little musty. It’s not just that the wrinkled guys keep each other up to date on their urination habits and talk about broads they don’t remember sleeping with – part of its parade of not-so-insightful cheap details about getting older. Here’s a movie that hates pop stars and reality TV, has a character deride another’s past “experimenting with homosexuality,” and parades pretty women through scenes for the express purpose of making the men feel better about themselves. (Ditto frumpy or obese hotel workers and guests who are posed in displays against the rich décor in ways that accentuate luxurious grotesqueness.)
In fact, every woman in the movie is either a problem to be solved by a man (the only solution to Weisz troubles is to date a hotel employee who comically bugs out his eyes when he first sees her) or an object to be appreciated on aesthetic grounds. In one scene Sorrentino has a beauty queen (Madalina Diana Ghenea) – a character who, in a previous scene, was mocked for wanting to change careers – parades nude in front of Caine and Keitel at an otherwise empty pool for no reason other than to show off for their benefit (and ours, I suppose). What a relief, then, to find Jane Fonda stride into the picture for one glorious scene. She plays an actress who arrives at the hotel to turn down an offer Keitel has sent her. In an exquisitely played monologue, she punctures the movie’s airless cranky old man self-involved self-regard.
Sadly, the film returns to her for an additional quick scene that dilutes her righteous feminist fire by making her seem helpless and deranged (sadly of a piece with the rest of the film). But at least she snaps off a great line that inadvertently deflates the surrounding pretentions: “Life goes on, even without all that cinema bullshit.” If only the movie took its own wake up call. It’s a work of great surface beauty, Luca Bigazzi’s handsome cinematography filled with striking compositions. Sorrentino floats through convincing performances and lush production design with such ease, it’s possible to slip out of the narrative and enjoy it as a sensation, a parade of interesting images. The problem is only that Youth keeps insisting it’s adding up to some import, making some keen insights into the minds of its characters, or into the very process of living life to the fullest at every age. Such ambitions only lead to starkly reveal how empty and shallow it is. Sorrentino has prepared an elaborate airy dessert, but served it insisting it’s the entire meal.