After his big success with ‘The Great Beauty’, Paolo Sorrentino is back with an English language version of essentially the same story. In place of Toni Servilo as Jep Gambardella, an aging Rome journalist facing a mid-life crisis, we now have Sir Michael Caine as Fred Ballinger, a slightly older composer who also finds that he’s stuck in a rut.
The setting here in Youth is a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps. The inciting incident resolves around an invitation from a representative of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip for Ballinger to conduct his most famous piece, ‘Simple Songs’, at Prince Philip’s birthday celebration. Wouldn’t you guess but Fred, the curmudgeon that he is, refuses, citing a lack of interest in pursuing music as a career at this late date.
There are other assorted characters at the resort including Ballinger’s daughter, Lena, winningly played by Rachel Weisz. Lena works as her father’s assistant but is also married to the son of Ballinger’s good friend, Mick Boyle (played by an impressive Harvey Keitel), an aging filmmaker who also appears to have lost his mojo. When Lena is dumped by her husband she goes into a tailspin until she finds romance with a strange guy with a beard, a mountain climber, also at the resort.
Meanwhile Fred and Mick trade stories about women they used to know, particularly one who they both had an unconsummated relationship with. Unlike Fred, who still is talented, Mick has seen his better days, deceiving himself that his latest film which he is working on with a bunch of young screenwriters, is a ‘testament’ of sorts.
Other odd characters show up including Paul Dano as Jimmy Tree, a frustrated actor remembered only for a commercially successful but aesthetically bankrupt role as a robot, Roly Serrano as a very overweight former soccer star Maradona, Luna Mijovic as a young masseuse who imparts sage advice to Fred, and Madalina Ghenea as an enigmatic and alluring Miss Universe who catches the eyes of both Fred and Mick while bathing.
Despite Keitel’s efforts, he’s unable to do much with the character of Mick, who turns out to be a real sad sack, particularly after his long-time leading lady Brenda Morel (sensationally performed by Jane Fonda), changes her mind about acting in his latest project and instead has agreed instead to act in a new television series. Brenda’s decision results in (super spoilers ahead) Mick’s suicide.
Ballinger’s story is equally downbeat as he continually reiterates the fact that he’s no longer interested in music mainly due to his invalid wife being unable to perform the part he wrote for her. Whether it was Mick’s death or a visit to his wife who we find out has dementia (or a combination thereof), Ballinger rather predictably changes his mind, and ends up accepting the Queen’s invitation.
Jep Gambardella’s epiphany in The Great Beauty appears better thought out than Ballinger’s, and the characters and situations in general are more compelling than what Sorrentino has proffered up here in Youth. Sorrentino’s regular cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, continues to impress with all kinds of sensational shots and Youth is certainly worth watching for the visuals, instead of the feeble story.
One wonders if Mr. Sorrentino really has much more to say about life in general. Fred Ballinger’s reclamation is hardly something to get excited about after experiencing all his downbeat ruminations throughout a narrative which was told much better in Sorrentino’s earlier and much more impressive masterpiece.