If The Great Beauty is a contemporary take on La dolce vita, then Youth is the modern answer to 8 1/2.
Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty is no show biz whirlwind a la Day for Night, All That Jazz, or Birdman, however; its similarities to 8 1/2 are more in structure and mood, and even breaks out beyond that discourse in its final act.
Most of the movie takes place at a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps: a playground where the wealthy elite venture for rest, relaxation, introspection. Among the guests are retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), his daughter & assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), her father-in-law and Fred’s longtime friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), and reclusive Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano).
Of the bunch, Fred is the most stubbornly locked in the present; he refuses multiple offers to leave retirement and perform his famous “Simple Songs” piece for Queen Elizabeth II. His being at the resort appears to be more out of routine and his drive for isolation, than making any real progress in his life.
Though note, this is not a movie where “nothing happens;” like 8 1/2, the main players in one man’s life manifest themselves all within one location. He and Lena hash out demons from their pasts (with Weisz delivering an exceptional, award-worthy performance); and he is there for her as her marriage crumbles apart. He is a companion to his closest peer, Mick, a longtime director struggling to find the ending for his new film. He provides guidance to the frustrated artist Jimmy who, like Fred, is best known for one work.
The titular “youth” of this film – the middle-aged Lena, Jimmy, plus Mick’s team of writers – find themselves in crisis, turning to the “old” – Fred and Mick. Much like the discourse within which the film operates (relationships viewed in the aggregate), Fred and Mick’s lifetimes of pain and experience provide wisdom to the youth’s more short-term struggles, viewing life as a string of individual crises, pitfalls, and climbs.
This sentiment is poetically expressed as Mick’s younger screenwriters brainstorm the ending to their film, a decades-long love story. Each twenty/thirty-something writer throws out a half-assed idea of what a man would say to his longtime wife on his deathbed. Only Mick proposes that the wife should speak, and delivers a passionate, yet frustrated speech of what he imagines she would say. The youth weave fiction about what they believe that pivotal scene of life to be, while Mick, frighteningly close to that stage himself, can much more concretely grasp that moment.
The narrative elements move at a deliberate pace, but Youth has rarely a dull moment. It is a film driven by an intelligent script and paced with stunning music – a worthy successor to Sorrentino’s prior triumph The Great Beauty. Both are thoughtful, emotional experiences that provoke introspection and inspiration.