Writer/ director Paolo Sorrentino’s indescribable and irresistible Youth (La giovinezza) operates on its own beguiling wavelength and to its own rhythm that fondly, firmly recalls the works of such masters as Luis Bunuel and especially Federico Fellini. The setting is a health spa in the Swiss Alps, where retired symphony conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is vacationing with his best friend, filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Also in attendance are jaded superstar Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) and Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), whose bitterness erupts when she is unceremoniously dumped by her husband (Ed Stoppard) – who happens to be Mick’sson.
These are rich roles, richly portrayed by a cast operating at full power. Keitel and Caine had never worked together before, but they establish an immediate and affectionate chemistry. Weisz enjoys perhaps her best screen role since her Oscar-winning performance in The Constant Gardener (2004), and Dano – coming off a stellar performance as the young Brian Wilson in last year’s Love & Mercy – displays formidable comedic chops as the star who can’t help but be starved for attention.
Jane Fonda clocks in with a late-inning appearance as a grande dame who gives Mick a harsh primer in the realities of contemporary Hollywood – an observation that cannot help but seem quite accurate in today’s climate of high-concept cinema.
Sorrentino’s direction is often indulgent and sometimes self-indulgent, but never to the detriment of the overall story. Since Birdman’s Oscar win last year, a number of films (including Clouds of Sils Maria and Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter) have had a somewhat similarly fantastical quality, but none does it quite as beautifully as Youth does.
This is celebration of life and of film, of youth and old age, of love and pain and worry – a film of gorgeous imagery (courtesy Luca Bigazzi’s sumptuous cinematography) that is operatic, surreal, sensual, wise, magical, and full of surprises. !