Someone should really take away Paulo Sorrentino’s passport. Just quietly remove it from his bedside desk, perhaps hide it under the sofa, anything to stop him from getting on a plane with it. Whenever Sorrentino seems to take flight from his native Italy, things seem to go wrong. His characters become caricatures, his witty dialogue becomes tedious and his profound ruminations merely silly.
Sorrentino wrote the main role especially for Michael Caine, but it’s difficult to see why. Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired composer residing in a luxury resort in rural Switzerland. Stoic and stubborn, Ballinger watches with detached amusement at the circus of well-to-do freaks that drift through the resort. He’s joined by his lifelong friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a fading but zestful movie director and his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who acts as his assistant. Paul Dano plays a jaded Hollywood starlet hiding from himself and the world, and even grumposaurus musician Mark Kozelek makes an appearance.
Youth, like The Great Beauty, has simultaneously little story and too much of it. The essential thread of the film is Ballinger’s conflict over accepting an invitation from the Queen to perform one final concert. The reasons behind this reluctance are unclear, and like Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty, Ballinger is a somewhat passive, ponderous protagonist. Elsewhere, Boyle wants to make one final film, his last shot at a great piece of art, by cajoling some obnoxious young writers to help him conceive it.
The main problem with Youth is that it’s difficult to care about any of the characters or their woes. Sorrentino is a director who takes risks, he throws some left turns, surprises the audience, and in most of his previous films these risks have blossomed and soared. However, when they fall flat, they fall really, really flat. Ballinger and Boyle’s pretensions are neither charming nor interesting, and it is somewhat sickly that a middle aged director has sought to convey the complexities of old age.
There is the occasional brilliant moment, such as a fantastic dream sequence in which Ballinger crosses a flooded piazza to meet the gaze of a beauty queen, but these are few and far between. Caine and Keitel are not bad actors but with the pretentious, muddled dialogue they are given by Sorrentino they are made to look foolish. Paul Dano is one of the only actors to come out with any credit; his turn as Jimmy Tree, the lost starlet, is strange and serene. There is the delicate, mournful tones of Kozelek’s fingerpicking to add a touch of pathos to proceedings.
The swooping, elegant camera of Sorrentino’s previous films has vanished. This is replaced by banal static shots, to emphasise the mundanity of life in the resort and the sedateness of old age. Which is a shame, because Sorrentino is at his best when he glides like a bird. If The Great Beauty was pure, sentimental and expressive then Youth is over-thought out, ponderous and dull. The grass is not always greener on the other side.