Paolo Sorrentino wastes no time announcing his directorial touch in Youth, opening on a decentered medium close-up of a singer on a rotating glass platform filled with lights that alternately overexpose her face and leave it in silhouette. It’s the kind of virtuosity, pristine and arid, that defines Sorrentino’s aesthetic, as well as his ongoing partnership with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, who favors bold colors and carefully calculated lighting setups for even the most insignificant shots. The pair favor brittle ornamentation, and they use that style to play up the hollow opulence of the Swiss retreat where the action takes place. The hotel and spa is the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, from which the decaying rich of the world can watch the slow immolation of their insular worlds.
Youth focuses on two patrons in particular: retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a director struggling to put together a project he considers his “testament,” and to the broad indifference of his young writing team, his unseen producers, and the ticket-buying public. Fred and Mick suggest beta-male counterparts of The Great Beauty’s Dionysian protagonist. They spend their days reminiscing about all the women they never slept with, nostalgic for paths not taken. Their hang-ups stunt them despite their age; the film’s title may refer to what the protagonists pine for, but their behavior suggests they never grew out of insecure adolescence.
As ever, Sorrentino ironically cuts the legs out from under his protagonists’ wistfulness with grotesquerie. Scenes from around the spa spotlight the flabby, old patrons who shuffle between massage and steam rooms where they sit in fossilized stasis, arranged in grim tableaux vivants as their wrinkled, bloated flesh is heated and rubbed. A few recurring characters stand out, but only as thinly symbolic types: an obese former footballer (Roly Serrano) who sports both a crucifix and a Karl Marx tattoo; an actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who resents the blockbuster role that made him famous; an old couple who never say a single word to each other. These characters represent obvious personal failures, but they fail to comment significantly on any social issues at large, which wouldn’t matter if the director didn’t project a feeling of great importance onto the hotel and its guests.
This tendency to make characters mouthpieces for the director’s petty grievances manifests most strongly, as usual, in resolutely two-dimensional women, who occasionally stand up for themselves, but always manage to redirect sympathy back onto the men they justifiably recriminate. Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) balances a scene that reveals her intelligence by elsewhere existing solely to tease and tempt the old men, while Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), mutes the power of calling out her father’s failures by relying on him to shoulder her emotional burden when her husband (Ed Stoppard) runs off with Paloma Faith (herself, unconvincingly).
Lena gets off easy, however, compared to Faith, who’s demeaned for being ugly and untalented and for having “the most obscene job in the world”: that of a pop star. Sorrentino regularly casts musicians in his films, but he tends to treat them with a fan’s reverence (Mark Kozelek even ends up scoring a chunk of this film with his confessional folk). But everything about his treatment of Faith is mean-spirited and callous, from the other characters’ descriptions of her to a music-video dream whose clumsiness suggests both that making bubbly pop videos isn’t as easy as it looks and that Sorrentino couldn’t be bothered to make her profession look anything less than stupid.
Sidestepping at least some of The Great Beauty’s self-pity, Youth has its graceful moments. In one scene, Fred dispenses with his reluctance to compose and seems to conduct nature itself, making literal woodwinds of trees swaying in the breeze and percussion of rustling cowbells. Later, Caine brings a great deal of weariness and shame to Fred’s confession of why he can no longer perform, and he’s framed in a beautiful shot that places Lena in the background, just out of focus but sufficiently clear to be able to see her look of shock, then grief, as he explains himself.
Nonetheless, the film’s narrow range of empathy prevents any capitalization on such moments, and too often Youth sympathizes with its characters’ worst impulses. The most revealing scene of the movie may be when Mick arranges a meeting with his old muse, Brenda Forel (Jane Fonda), to pitch his movie, only for her to turn him down in favor of a TV role. The impact of this bombshell alters Youth’s course, and it also permits Sorrentino to expand his list of soft targets to the hackneyed belief that television is the death of cinema. What he cannot fathom is that maybe his own brand of cinema, with its cookie-cutter types arranged to reinforce the genius of his vision, is why actors in general, and women and people of color specifically, have fled to television in the first place, and why audiences more interested in storytelling than self-portrait have followed them.