REVIEW: They might has well just have called YOUTH “Beauty” for all the sumptuousness of the visuals on display in this – director Paolo Sorrentino's latest. Following close-on-the-heels of his Academy Award-winning THE GREAT BEAUTY, YOUTH is a more successful English-language effort for the director, whose first attempt at breaking through to an American audience (the Sean Penn vehicle THIS MUST BE THE PLACE) was a disaster.
YOUTH certainly feels more in-line with his Italian work, and like IL DIVO and THE GREAT BEAUTY, it's a feast for the senses in many ways. Having been shot on location at a real five-star Luxury spa in Switzerland, certainly Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel look remarkably vigorous and vital for their ages – no doubt helped by the fact that each gets to dress immaculately in custom-made Brioni suits. In some ways, their vitality negatively affects the film as neither seems quite as distressed at aging as the premise makes you believe.
What's most interesting about YOUTH is how it takes you into the mindset of the ultra-privileged as they age and try to hold-on to their youth, with Caine being a composer so famous an envoy of the Queen shows up periodically to beg him to accept a knighthood – which he refuses because it would be once again playing his signature piece “Simple Songs”. By contrast, Keitel plays a famous director trying to launch one last, great film but struggling with both financing, his script and an ultra temperamental leading lady (Jane Fonda).
YOUTH tackles the price people like that have to pay to lead those kinds of exceptional lives, with Keitel being an absentee dad, while by contrast Caine dotes on his daughter (Rachel Weisz) but also has guilt over the way he mistreated her mother by indulging in numerous affairs with both men and women. Being two legends themselves, Keitel and Caine seem well-versed with the kinds of characters they're playing, and their chemistry as life-long pals is unmistakable.
As good as they are, YOUTH is totally stolen by Fonda, who only has three scenes but is stunning as Keitel's diva muse, who hides her aging underneath a ghastly make-up job and wig. That Fonda allowed herself to be made to look this way is a brave choice, and her acting is so superb that a best supporting actress Oscar nod seems like a must.
By contrast, YOUTH stumbles a bit with the younger characters, with Paul Dano ultimately hollow as a movie-star heartthrob trying to be taken seriously outside of his teen franchise. Rachel Weisz fares much better as Caine's daughter, with one really juicy scene early-on where she airs all of her grievances against her dad, although the ultimate resolution to her arc feels phony.
One thing you can definitely label YOUTH as is as a true European film, with it highly reminiscent of the types of films Michelangelo Antonioni did in his hey-day, with the same eye for beauty contrasting with the theme of emotional isolation. On a purely visual level, YOUTH is among the best shot films of the year, with Luca Bigazzi shooting all the women (minus Jane Fonda) in such a loving fashion that shots of Rachel Weisz lounging around a pool wearing an Armani bathing suit or Mădălina Diana Ghenea bathing while the very lucky Caine and Keitel watch her are enough to make your jaw drop. All that, coupled with the acting and great music by composer David Lang and Sun Kil Moon make this a pleasant experience, even if afterwards it all feels just a little bit minor.