Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) wiles away his days in an Alpine hotel in the company of a filmmaker (Harvey Keitel), a Hollywood star (Paul Dano) and Europe’s wealthy. But a visit from his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and the Queen’s emissary jolts him from his life of comfort.
An actor, a filmmaker and an ageing composer walk into a bar… and nothing much happens. It might sound like the set-up for the world’s worst joke but Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language film is a witty mood-piece lit up with quirky cameos and a vivid sense of style. The Italian director is a keen observer of human foibles and the sun-warmed, muzzy indolence of the Alpine setting – a kind of Grand Budapest Hotel for the terminally elegant – sees him bring his eye to a cast of fading forces as they subject themselves to the luxurious ennui of massages, mud baths and endless poking and prodding. So when maestro Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, excelling in a role Toni Servillo might have claimed) chats with Harvey Keitel’s opus-craving filmmaker, it’s peeing patterns rather than art that monopolise the conversation. Sharing a swimming pool with Miss Universe practically causes cardiac arrest.
Yet while the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty gave Fellini’s La Dolce Vita a modern spin, Youth’s grey-templed riffs on 8 1/2 – artistic impasse, listlessness, really languid dream sequences – don’t land quite as impressively here. Caine and Keitel revel in chunky roles but the film remains frustratingly out of reach and the director’s visual flights of fancy, so powerful in his earlier works, only add a distancing glaze. Despite Rachel Weisz’s best efforts as Ballinger’s alienated and fragile daughter, real heart, a rare commodity in this restrained and wry emotional landscape, is too often sidelined in favour of distracting subplots and an ironic veneer. There’s more and better to come from Sorrentino.
An Alpine study of ageing and creativity that’s as fresh and bracing as the mountain air, although occasionally just as chilly.