Paul Sorrentino’s Youth casts Michael Caine as a retired orchestra conductor on holiday with his daughter and best friend when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday.
Youth is a very strange film as there is a lot to like about it but I never found myself enjoying it as an experience overall. Michael Caine’s Fred Ballinger is the central character and the world is seen through his eyes. Caine plays the perfect grumpy old man who is tired of life but not to the point of being suicidal. He has simply gotten to the stage of his life where he is disinterested with everything.
Many of the scenes have him discussing life with his best friend Mick (Harvey Keitel) and his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). These work to varying degrees and manage to be fairly engaging early on but the momentum quickly runs out with some of the dialogue feeling horribly forced and many conversations dragging on endlessly.
It could be that this film is too arty for my tastes but the lack of any real plot was difficult for me to deal with. As an exploration of an old man reflecting on his life a lot of it worked really well but the fact that it didn’t seem to be going anywhere made me feel more than a little disinterested. It felt as if the film was building to Fred coming out of retirement to conduct his music for Prince Philip but the film meanders far too much to make it feel like it is heading that way.
With a little tightening the driving force of his reflection could have been dealing with the issues that prevent him from agreeing to this one off appearance. The personal reasons he references are interesting and resonate on an emotional level but the lack of focus means that this gets more than a little lost among all the other conversations that are being had.
Michael Caine’s performance is first rate. He takes Fred through a complex range of emotions while trying to remain disinterested. Seeing him forced to confront the real blocker for him coming out of retirement is very moving and Fred remains likable despite all effort he makes to be the opposite.
Harvey Keitel is almost the opposite of Fred. He refuses to let age defeat him and continues to work on new films with boundless enthusiasm. His main focus is to craft a new film suitable for his inspiration Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda). He tends to take on a more level headed role in their conversations and always remains an engaging presence.
Rachel Weisz does a really good job as Fred’s daughter. She successfully portrays the complex relationship that she has with her father and the conflicted feelings she has about her relationship ending on a whimper. She has always been an engaging actress and does some of her best work here.
Paul Dano turns in an engaging performance as Jimmy Tree, an actor trying to escape typecasting for a role he is unable to break his association with. He brings a youthful perspective to Fred and Mick’s older and more cynical outlook. The point of view he brings is usually engaging and he works well within the framework of the rest of the cast.
I’ve mentioned that the film lacks focus on what it should be about but there is also a significant pacing problem. It picks up a lot of momentum in the first half hour or so but quickly loses it to the point that it never recovers. There are individual scenes that are incredibly well performed such as Michael Caine breaking down about the reasons for his reluctance to come out of retirement and Rachel Weisz monologuing about her relationship with her father but those are often followed by further lulls in the story.
The film looks great with lots of scenic views reflecting the serenity of the setting. There are lots of interesting musical choices that help contrast with the quiet atmosphere established. In particular the musical interludes help further the divide between age and youth being developed throughout. There are many attempts at comedy mostly through the conversations being had as well as some notable visual gags. Some of these landed for me but many of them didn’t. Some scenes will have many people laughing out loud though.
I feel that this film could have been more engaging with a stronger focus on Fred coming to terms with the request to bring him out of retirement but it loses momentum quickly and becomes something of a chore by the end.
• Excellent performances from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz
• Some really compelling conversations and impressive monologues
• Beautifully shot with creative musical interludes
• Loses focus on what the film is trying to be about
• Some of the dialogue feels forced and meanders too much
• Complete loss of momentum after the first half hour or so
• Film runs too long with poor pacing