Friday, December 18, 2015

Youth: Ponderous claptrap

Youth (2015) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated R, for graphic nudity, sexuality and profanity

By Derrick Bang


I haven’t seen a film this obtuse and pretentiously arty since Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, back in 1991.

Mick (Harvey Keitel, left), Lena (Rachel Weisz) and Fred (Michael Caine) spend their
evenings watching the various singers, musicians and dancers hired to amuse the
guests of this opulent spa: performances that are far more entertaining than this film.
And it has been a good quarter-century, being spared that sort of self-indulgent twaddle.

Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s newest effort, Youth, has all the hallmarks of a Greenaway head trip: the same casually nude people, randomly draped like living room décor from one moment to the next; the same slow takes on still lifes, whether spacious, cow-laden fields or abandoned lawn chairs; the same jarring application of frequently discordant music.

The same droning soliloquies and dry-as-toast conversations by top-flight actors who appear to have been coached not to show emotion, or react in a manner that might be recognized by ordinary people.

In a word — no, in three words — boring, boring and boring.

Retired composer and conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and defiantly vigorous film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), friends for decades, are vacationing at an opulent hotel/spa at the foot of the Swiss Alps. It’s the sort of Art Nouveau establishment — complete with oddly detached and/or just plain weird staff members — that Wes Anderson lampooned so deliciously in last year’s Grand Budapest Hotel.

(In fact, it’s the Berghotel Schatzalp, a former luxury sanatorium built in 1900 for tuberculosis patients. Make of that what you will, given how Sorrentino has chosen to use this setting.)

Fred and Mick have reached their twilight years: the point at which each has too many yesterdays to remember with any accuracy, and too few tomorrows to anticipate with any degree of pleasure. Casual conversation sticks to “good things,” which is to say they tend to avoid topics that might get prickly, or that invade the other’s deeply private space.

“Good things” also apparently includes sharing their respective urinary accomplishments — or lack thereof — and a series of ongoing bets over whether the couple at an adjacent dining table, oddly silent evening after evening, ever will actually speak to each other.

Fred is approached by an emissary from Queen Elizabeth, who wishes to acknowledge her husband’s upcoming birthday with a concert to be conducted by Ballinger, with a program confined to his most acclaimed work, “Simple Songs.” But Fred stubbornly refuses to un-retire himself, and besides; he doesn’t perform “Simple Songs” anymore. For personal reasons.

Mick, in turn, is struggling with the screenplay for his next film, fleshing out the acts with a coterie of five nameless Hollywood wannabes. They’re never introduced; we never learn anything about them, aside from the fact that two are in the early stages of falling in love with each other. This quintet is just sorta vaguely anonymous, or just plain vague ... like much of this film.

As it happens, Fred and Mick are more than good friends; they’re also mutual fathers-in-law: Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is married to Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard). Or at least she was; we’ve only just been introduced to Lena when comes the news that Julian has dumped her for a lusty little pop singer (Paloma Faith, essentially playing herself).

Tears and recrimination from Lena; nary a backward glance from Justin. Brief awkward silence between Fred and Mick, but they’re too firmly bonded to let this interfere with their friendship.

Lena’s bond with Fred, however, is another matter. Her own personal heartbreak has unleashed a lifetime of disappointment in a father who paid attention only to his music, too frequently ignoring both his daughter and his wife. It’s a grand, spiteful speech, and Weisz makes the most of it, getting the whole diatribe out in one long, furious take.

It’s a welcome display of honest passion, in a film that too frequently wanders off in odd directions, as if seeking its bliss.

The tableau includes a few other guests, most just window-dressing: a Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk) who supposedly can levitate; the reigning Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) who proudly displays her gorgeous curves; the ponytailed young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic) who manages to appear shy, plain and unexpectedly sexy, all at the same time.

Then there’s Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a successful American actor desperate to be taken seriously as an artist, but forever haunted by a long-ago starring role in the blockbuster action flick that made his career. Jimmy pretends to be vacationing with everybody else, but in reality he misses little, apparently sizing up the quirks, tics and hiccups displayed by all the other guests, as if deciding which to appropriate for his upcoming character study.

All these folks wander aimlessly about the spa hallways and grounds, occasionally intersecting each other’s orbits in the manner of spinning electrons. Very little comes of such encounters.

Actually, very little comes of this entire film, which at 118 minutes is a torturous slog. Sorrentino clearly intends this to be a revealing document on the often heartbreaking nature of ageing, memory, desire and ambition ... but his own aggressively flamboyant style too frequently calls attention to itself, utterly extinguishing even the briefest flicker of plot or character dynamic.

Caine, usually an excellent actor even under trying circumstances, struggles gamely to keep us involved in Fred’s “great mystery”: Why won’t he perform the work for which he’s best known? Dano does a bit better, his own quirky approach more in synch with Sorrentino’s stylistic twitches.

We’re intended to become curious about the answers to these various questions. What film role is Jimmy prepping? Will Fred ultimately be persuaded to abandon retirement, if only briefly? Will Lena find rebound happiness in the arms of a stoic mountaineer (Robert Seethaler) who just sorta pops into these proceedings toward the end of the second act?

Do we care about any of this?

Highly doubtful. I sure as hell didn’t.

Frankly, I knew we were in trouble from the opening scene, where Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi hold on the tight close-up of a singer — one of many performers hired to entertain the hotel guests each evening — as she and her band slowly turn on a revolving stage. This goes on interminably, as she delivers the whole ... entire ... song. To no purpose.

Which pretty much sums up Youth: purposeless and pointless. All aggressive style, virtually no substance. At least, none that makes any sense.

You’ll feel very, very old, by the time this film finally (praise God, finally) concludes.

1 comment:

  1. My wife and I saw it New Year's Eve. Reminded us both of movies we saw in the 60s. Kind of a head scratcher. It did give us something interesting to talk about.