From its opening shot, a twirl around a retro band covering Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got The Love,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” announces itself as an odd bird. To quote a project from star Harvey Keitel’s youth (which itself quotes Kris Kristofferson), the film is a walking contradiction. Many films set up dualities, even taking on a paradoxical quality, but this is really something else.
Despite its title, “Youth” is a film starring mostly senior citizens looking back on that stage of life through a foggy retrospective lens. Michael Caine’s Fred Ballinger, a retired composer, twiddles his thumbs in a Swiss mountain resort with Harvey Keitel’s Mick Boyle, a screenwriter still trying to plan his magnum opus with a team of industry neophytes at his beck and call. They pine for their younger years and opine on the frustrations of their more advanced ones, mostly just spinning their wheels.
Sorrentino matches their conversations with the style of his screenplay, a lax, discursive saunter that unfolds almost in vignettes. Separating these dialogue-heavy sequences are highly stylized montages of various guests and workers around the resort, each presented in a grotesque kind of tableau. (Except the lounge singer, for whom Sorrentino jarringly cuts from a performance to her chowing down on a chicken wing.) Be they the whorish fame-obsessed fans lusting after celebrities, a morbidly obese soccer player or a Miss Universe, all bystanders gets warped by his bizarre camera.
The people who get the most thorough cinematic treatment, oddly enough, are not the film’s two grey gentlemen. While they mosey around, much younger people in their field of vision find it quite easy to articulate themselves. Rachel Weisz, as Fred’s daughter and assistant Lena, hesitates little in expressing her disappointment with him. Paul Dano’s Jimmy Tree, a zen Method-style actor, loves walking others through his views in neat dichotomies. And, of course, Jane Fonda shows up for a cameo-length appearance as Mick’s starlet and muse Brenda Morel, an actress who certainly does not mince words in her big tirade.
Many people like me assume that such disparities within a film will ultimately reconcile in the end. “Youth” defies these expectations, simply floating along to the rhythm of its own whiny, self-important heart. It’s admirable, sure, but also slightly confounding and moderately frustrating. Having to sit through grandiloquent monologue after bombastic soliloquy without character motivations or obstacle proves a most unpleasant task after the first hour. Visual flourishes keep it interesting, yet all the faux profundity takes a toll.
Sorrentino clearly put a great deal of artistry and intellect into “Youth,” so it feels awkward when so little of it resonates. Great aesthetics mean little when poured into such thinly sketched characters for whom we are expected to care so much. Perhaps if they had been fortune cookie caption writers and not capital-a “Artists,” their waxing philosophical might be a little more appropriate. B- /