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Review: Youth (2015)

Youth (2015)

Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino

Premise: A retired orchestra conductor (Michael Caine) stays in a secluded resort in the Alps with a collection of other wealthy and famous people. 

What Works: There is a lot about Youth that is unusual but one of its most distinguishing features is the way that the filmmakers are able to mix melancholy with humor. The film is shot through with sadness; it’s not a self-absorbed depression or a hysteric kind of grief but rather a nuanced and pensive atmosphere. The movie focuses on two old friends who are settling into the realization that their careers, their social lives, and even their bodies have already seen their best days and are slowly decaying. But amid that gloomy realization, Youth has quite a bit of humor. It’s a wry and caustic sense of humor but the comic bits inject some relief into the movie’s otherwise somber tone, humanize the characters, and make the serious bits more credible. Youth is anchored by a pair of terrific central performances by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. Caine is a former music composer who long ago wrote some simple but enduring pieces of music; he’s no longer interested in his music even when an emissary of the Queen of England requests that he conduct his iconic works at a special event. One of Michael Caine’s strengths as an actor is his ability to convey a lot through subtle gestures and he shows very good judgement of when to hold back and when to be dramatic. That is certainly the case in Youth and Caine’s performance is extraordinarily well measured. Also impressive is Harvey Keitel as a filmmaker who is planning to make the movie that will be his final testament. Keitel’s character is pretentious but he’s also earnest; this hypothetical film project is intended to be the thing that will give his life meaning and the way the movie deals with that is heartbreaking but also very smart. That’s another of the outstanding things about Youth. Without breaking into grand soliloquies, the movie has a lot of wisdom about what it is to be old, especially while surrounded by younger people. The film is ultimately about finding meaning in life while also accepting the fact that our own existence is finite. As melancholic as the picture can be, Youth has a lot in it that is life affirming and its balance between optimism and nihilism makes the movie compelling.

What Doesn’t: The story of Youth tends to wander. The filmmakers can’t quite decide if this picture is about Michael Cane and Harvey Keitel’s characters or if it is an ensemble piece about the residents and staff of this hotel. The film is populated by a lot of strange characters and while that gives the movie a distinct flavor the picture can be a little too deliberately strange for its own good. There is a difference between a movie that is highly stylized but has its own internal logic, such as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and one that’s strange for its own sake. There are moments in Youth in which the picture skews toward the latter. This is seen most often in vignettes in which the movie stops for non-sequitur moments involving the hotel staff and guests. There are a lot of people populating the background but the film doesn’t quite integrate them into the story and when the movie pulls aside to spend time with them the sequences come across as filler. But it’s interesting filler and so the indulgence is forgivable. Youth is also a movie about well-off characters like famous musicians, movie stars, and models who are miserable while on vacation. It’s easy to be cynical about that; the movie makes a solemn point about the limitations of life by juxtaposing earthly delights with depression but the concept invites derision from viewers of more modest means.

DVD extras: Featurettes, biographies, and a photo gallery.

Bottom Line: Youth is a fine movie. It is strange in places and even if those weird qualities don’t always fit they add a lot of character to the picture. This is a smart and sensitive story of getting old with terrific central performances by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.

Episode: #585 (March 6, 2016)