“Youth” is best seen with a foot firmly planted in the past. That foot, whether steeped in the careers of performers like Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, or in the gluttonous cinema of directors like Federico Fellini, proves crucial in the understanding of Paolo Sorrentino’s latest existential soufflé. Don’t let the promiscuous promotional posters sway your perspective; this is not a story that cashes in on easy old guy jokes. Instead, it offers an intimate, often times jarring window into the souls of its characters, who just so happen to be played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.
As a retired composer and withering movie director, both acting giants ace their respective roles, oftentimes exceeding Sorrentino’s script with a tasteful flair for the theatrics; both a reminder of their once prodigious talents and a solid case that they’ve both still got it in spades. Barbs about old girlfriends and raising children are delivered with such moxy they can seem autobiographical at points, pushing the picture into performing territory unseen by either man in quite a while. It doesn’t hurt that Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano (who continues to shine in every role thrown his way) are there to lend scene strengthening support, fleshing out Caine’s character and formulating their own melancholy conclusions about life, languishing and the pursuit of happiness.
Each of these acting assets result in moments of wonder; from the father-daughter relationship of Weisz and Caine to the show stopping verbal brawl of Keitel and Jane Fonda, who immediately gets her hands dirty in a glorified cameo role. It’s here that Sorrentino, an avid expert in crafting moods onscreen, allows his thematic thread posts to do the talking — running head first into mortality, legacy and what to do when all that’s left is regret: the big three of arthouse cinema. “Youth” makes no attempt to conceal its niche intentions, and the director’s dreamlike editing will quickly filter out anyone who’s arrived unprepared for a draining display. But while the film’s successful moments reach gloriously tender heights, such an “artsy” approach can leave things feeling hollow or emotionally undercut at times. This shortcoming finds itself on full display come the finale; where what should have been a beautifully orchestrated curtain closer comes off as indifferent and rushed.
It’s a shame, really, given the brilliance of the moments that preceded it. Caine and Keitel co-opt some killer chemistry, but Paolo Sorrentino’s Fellini impression comes off a bit too superficial to close the deal. As a result, “Youth” files under the same bin that most albums do from elderly musicians — a few great songs, but an overall inconsistent experience. In the words of Caine’s nebbish nihilist, “tremendous effort, mild result.”
Danilo Castro is a resident of Oro Valley and writer for the Film Noir Archive blog at www.filmnoirarchive.com