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Youth - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B
Acting: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Music: B+

Youth is an odd movie. When taken at face value, it has a fair amount going against it, not least of which are the performances, which don't necessarily feel phoned in so much as lacking polish, like the director just did one or two takes of each scene and just decided that was good enough. What's odd about it, among other things, is how deliberate even that feels. Nothing in this movie feels like an accident. It nearly crushes under the weight of its pointed intent. What the point of the intent is remains somewhat of a mystery.

The director, who also has sole writing credit, is Paolo Sorrentino, a guy with a dubiously high pedigree. He directed the mystifyingly acclaimed The Great Beauty in 2013, a rare instance of my not understanding widespread love for a movie. I gave that one a C+; at the very least, I guess, I like Youth better. Youth, by comparison, has a coherent and linear story line.

Like The Great Beauty, though, Youth obsesses over aging. This time the main characters are even older -- by about fifteen years: retired and famous composer Fred Ballinger (played by 82-year-old Michael Caine) and legendary director Mick Boyle (played by 76-year-old Harvey Keitel) are either 80 or close to it, and keep referring to a friendship that has lasted for sixty years. They're vacationing in the Alps at a resort for the uber-famous and have been going there together for years, although Boyle is here with a team of writers working on a script. The movie is intended for an actress who has been in a bunch of his movies, who comes to visit for a single scene near the end of the film, allowing for a brief appearance by Jane Fonda. Fonda, by the way, is 78. It's sadly unsurprising that even when a worthy actress who is older is given a part she clearly relishes, she still gets all of about five minutes of screen time.

There are some token younger actors too, as always in movies about and featuring old people. This often seems like a waste of effort, like an attempt to lure in younger movie-goers who won't come in droves to movies about old people regardless. Still, Rachel Weisz is lovely as Ballinger's daughter and assistant, Lena. And Ballinger strikes up an acquaintance with a huge movie star also staying at the hotel, played by the more than capable Paul Dano. Dano is a unique talent but is more understated than usual here. Then again, so is everyone. Most of the time, Sorrentino has them speaking in hushed tones.

Youth is often fascinating in spite of itself. The dialogue comes off as unnatural and trite, especially considering the often unfocused acting. There's an odd quality to the line delivery. But it's also shot in a highly stylized way, subtly evoking a dream state. The film opens with the camera trained on the face of a singer, who is performing on a revolving stage. We only ever see her singing face in focus, without moving away from it, while the blurred world in the background twirls around her. This sets a tone that remains consistent throughout the film, which runs just over two hours long. We cut to Ballinger and Boyle discussing whether they managed to piss that day. Then back to other patrons of this resort, in poses that exist somewhere between artistic and surreal. A lot of shots, throughout the movie, are like performance art.

There's a certain level of pretension. Michael Caine is perhaps the best performer here, though even he remains fairly subdued. His character is called "apathetic," after all. Ballinger and Boyle talk about how they've grown so old they can't really remember anything about their parents anymore, which is depressing. An emissary to the Queen of England keeps visiting to convince Ballinger to conduct a performance of the piece that made him famous, and Ballinger is refusing. He doesn't talk about this with Boyle, who in turn doesn't talk to him about his script writing frustrations. They "only tell each other the good things," which makes for a weird and, by definition, not all that intimate of a friendship.

There's a scene with Boyle's son that exemplifies what's wrong with Youth. Boyle's son and Ballinger's daughter are married, but not for long. The son has shown up with the new woman he's in love with and intends to marry. A discussion about this takes place in the resort dining room, the son standing by the table that the two older friends are sitting at. Nothing about this conversation feels natural. The writing is stunted and the delivery wooden. But even this feels like an attempt at performance art. With Sorrentino, sometimes this approach works and sometimes it doesn't.

I suppose there's something to be said for production values, though. Youth has wonderfully designed sets that are well shot, with tracking cameras set to international pop songs with quirky but infectious beats. This seems like a movie that should be boring, but somehow it isn't. It's hard to put my finger on what makes it work, which it does, barely. There's nothing outright terrible about it. There's just something vaguely disappointing about it, because it really strains in its reach for the greatness it falls far short of.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel lament the things they can't remember in YOUTH.

Overall: B
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