124 minutes | MPAA rating: R
I had to watch “Youth” a second time to really appreciate it.
Glad I did.
As with his previous film, “The Great Beauty,” which was inspired by Fellini’s “La Dolce Vida,” the latest from filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino is inspired by (and often directly copies) Fellini’s “8 1/2.” My mistake the first time around was to see it first and foremost as an homage rather than a free-standing effort that playfully samples a great film from the past.
And then there’s the fact that this is about as subtle a movie as we’re going to encounter this holiday season — minimal plotting, zero action, maximum atmosphere. Do not see “Youth” if you’re tired or short-tempered or preoccupied.
Unfolding almost entirely at a posh hotel and spa in the Swiss Alps, the film centers on two old friends rapidly approaching 80.
As the film begins composer/conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is being approached by an agent of Queen Elizabeth, who for Prince Philip’s birthday wants Ballinger to conduct a performance of his seminal work “Simple Songs.” Ballinger turns down the offer and the accompanying knighthood, telling the oily emissary that he is retired. Period.
In the same hotel veteran filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is working with five young writers to complete the script of his next — and penultimate — film.
Fred and Mick find plenty of time to hang out together. Not only is Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) married to Nick’s son, but the two men have been friends for 60 years. They used to compete for the same women; now they battle over who has the most uncooperative prostate and shakiest memory.
There are other celebs to rub elbows with, like the current Miss Universe (who shocks and delights the two old cronies by swimming nude) and an American movie actor (Paul Dano) who quietly seethes because his fame rests almost entirely on a cheesy sci-fi flick in which he played a robot. (To stir things up he attends dinner made up and costumed as Adolf Hitler.)
Fred and Mick also amuse themselves studying on other guests, like the obese South American who was once the world’s best soccer player, a Tibetan llama who reputedly has powers of levitation, a small boy learning the violin by playing Fred’s “Simple Songs,” and a young girl who is vastly more advanced than her hovering and provincial mom.
The film even opens its arms to embrace the staff of the hotel, especially a nearly-mute young masseuse with a mouthful of orthodontics — she communicates with her fingers, not her tongue — and a bearded mountaineer who shows up at just in time to catch Lena when her marriage collapses.