The Abandonment of an Audience
Starring: Michael Caine, Paul Dano
Review written by Robert D. Patrick
Paolo Sorrentino is a gifted filmmaker, capable of sweeping, operatic moments that swell and crash. The quietest moments, after these emphatic visuals, stew in their own power like sea foam. There is bombast in his brush strokes, and because of his imperious aesthetic, much of his films become polarizing and cold. But what to do with all of the thunderous gunfire and decorative velvet? Sorrentino’s newest opus, Youth, is all about pomp and showmanship. Even at its darkest moments, it’s a waltz that walks upon champagne bubbles. But what does it all mean?
Youth is set within the gelid walls of a Swiss Alps resort. Inert, stoic and beautifully alien, the sanatorium is almost like the belly of a crashed spacecraft – nothing feels organic and whole. The beauty feels artificial, created by hope and distance. It’s this theme that Serrentino explores, ad nauseam, in his latest picture. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a detached composer, unable to generate music for himself any longer. He is weathered and discontent; his new conducting baton is a newspaper. Meanwhile, his friend, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), is a director in the middle of his next film. The two elder statesmen caw about the mysteries of life, in so many words, while wandering about the ornate surroundings of their resort. As you would expect, curious sidecars appear, including Paul Dano as an existential actor with a Randy Johnson mustache. Rachel Weisz also appears, mid-film, to assuage her own disappointments with curious methods.
The cinematography is gorgeous, and dips the audience in a wondrous kaleidoscope of visuals. But all of the panoramic opulence comes down to empty calories. If the style doesn’t move the story, then it’s a moot point. Here, the burned kernels of these characters and their memories weigh down the narrative. Rachel Weisz’s eyes water, as the camera zooms in to collect her tears like a bucket under a leaky ceiling. Paul Dano mopes and crawls about like a house cat. And Jane Fonda appears, briefly, as an acerbic movie star. Her performance, curiously lauded by critics, is basically that of a pop gun with lipstick. Caine and Keitel are fine, in their respective performances, but bring nothing substantial to a screenplay that expects them to simply be old.
Sorrentino has the eye of a great director and the heart of a slab of concrete. Between this and Clouds of Sils Maria I’m so exasperated of these world weary, lengthy dramas about aging stars that directors keep paper airplaning at audiences from across the room. Somebody needs to call Olivier Assayas and Paolo Sorrentino an Uber home.