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14 Jan 2016

The Brutality of Growing Old: 'Youth' Is a Crazy, Fantastic Meditation on Aging

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Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth.

Oh, those marketing people can be so deceiving.

From the previews, Youth looks like Cocoon minus the glowing aliens—a goofy-old-coot movie with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel leering at ladies in the swimming pool and complaining about their prostates.

Actually, Youth is far from being anything like Cocoon, and with the exception of some darkly humorous laughs—and, yes, a couple of prostate jokes—it’s not something I would classify as a comedy.

Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino isn’t interested in pleasantries or pulling punches. His movie is a brutal, almost dangerously honest take on artists growing old. It’s also a little bit crazy at times—to the point where I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if crazy aliens sprang up from the bottom of the swimming pool.

Caine, in one of the best and most quietly understated performances of his career, plays retired composer Fred Ballinger. Fred is on holiday at a dreamy Switzerland resort with his daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz, delivering the goods), and his film-director friend, Mick Boyle (Keitel, reminding you that he is still awesome).

Lena’s husband dumps her for a vacuous pop star who performs miracles in bed, sending her into a tailspin and giving Fred something else to worry about besides the miniscule level of pee traveling through his urethra. Mick, working on a film that doesn’t yet have an ending, remains a positive force for Fred, even though he’s become forgetful.

Representing the younger side of the artistic trade would be Jimmy Tree (the great Paul Dano), a popular actor preparing for a big role. Jimmy has done his share of art films, but most people remember him for his role as a robot—something about which people remind him during nearly every instance of human contact.

I used the word “brutal” up above, and I’m going to use the word again: This movie is bru-tal. When Fred finally lets an emissary for the queen know what he really thinks about her offer of knighthood, it’s one nasty exchange. When Lena gives her dad the what-for during a mud bath, the world stops. When Jimmy meets Miss Universe, and she brings up that damned robot, watch out. As far all-time screamers, the revelation of the role for which Jimmy is preparing is quite the shocker.

The beauty of Sorrentino’s film is that these brutal moments are handled in nuanced, subdued fashion. His script is eloquent, intelligent and often heartbreaking. Many of these characters will not have happy endings.

As an aging actress who has a caustic message for Mick, Jane Fonda shows up late in the movie and delivers one of the greatest scenes of her career. Fonda and Keitel sparring is as scary and punishing as anything in Creed.

Adding to the wonderful dialogue is the score by David Lang that is every ounce as beautiful as the stunning camerawork by Luca Bigazzi. Sorrentino is apparently a big Fellini fan, something evident in the film’s finale.

Paolo Sorrentino is only 45 years old. This meditation on aging seems to be coming from somebody who has logged at least 75 years on the planet—but he’s not even 50. That makes his achievement all the more impressive—although there are many 75-year-olds who might tell Sorrentino to cheer up a little bit, and that getting older isn’t always as dour as this film makes it out to be.

As for the finale, Youth finishes with either a crowning moment for Fred, or his worst nightmare, depending upon how you choose to take it in. The final look in Caine’s eyes says it all for me.

Youth is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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