Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film Youth (2015) has at least one or two too many characters and scenes.
This may be my own personal bias because I don’t think I’ve ever liked Paul Dano as an actor, but his character and all of his scenes could have been omitted from this film. That would’ve actually made the film stronger.
I don’t think this vain/vapid/disgruntled actor played by a very actor-like actor is all that substantial. His presence adds nothing to the picture. His character’s thoughts and commentary do nothing for the movie. I was never once moved, amused or pleased by Dano’s character, Jimmy Tree. But this is almost always the case with Dano in movies for me.
When I first saw Dano in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), I was mostly confused; I didn’t know whether I liked him or was impressed by him, but turns out, it was neither; my initial instinct was correct: I was merely confused by him.
His acting is very confusing to me because he acts so hard; Dano works so hard in the pictures but it’s precisely that which displeases me; he tries too hard to act, and this effort is all too apparent to me as the viewer; his acting is the type that I see in plays. Perhaps Dano belongs to the live theater. For the screen, it is too exhausting to witness. In fact, it’s humiliating. Discomforting. The excess is discomforting. Like seeing a stranger cry in front of me, or witnessing an orgasm when I shouldn’t be. That kind of discomfort.
Aside from Dano, I don’t understand why there is a Tibetan monk there–a nameless monk (played by Dorji Wangchuk, who, according to IMDb, is also a documentary filmmaker) who doesn’t impress Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine). I don’t get his role or his presence in this movie. It seems completely unnecessary. Seeing yet again another dimensionless Asian in a movie is simply distracting.
Another problem is the character Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea); Sorrentino’s fetishization of a voluptuous woman’s body in this picture might simply be his way of stating what Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) the filmmaker claims: how he is a great “woman’s director.” The only women in this film who have interesting qualities that make them memorable are Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz) and the young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic). They have a presence that do not submit to the male gaze or the male patronization, which is refreshing and comforting. Giving Miss Universe a minor moment of triumph to call Jimmy Tree out on his presumptuousness doesn’t justify having her parade around half naked in the opening act and completely naked in the later act. It’s just unappealing. This sort of female body exploitation is just hackneyed at this point, and distasteful.
Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) is yet another stereotype of an aged actress playing an aged actress (rings a Sunset Boulevard (1950) bell). Fonda’s monologue feels awkward. I’m not sure if it’s the delivery or the writing. (I might have to go with delivery since Lena’s monologue in the mud pack scene with her father is spectacular. It is so long but Weisz is completely marvelous in her delivery and is utterly moving.) But Fonda makes up for it by bringing in a great sliver of a moment when she breaks down on the airplane which I can only wish to have seen more of.
There is a beautifully picturesque moment when Mick stands before a hill and sees all the actresses he’s ever worked with doing their scene and their lines–repeating the same lines over and over–all at once. The colors, the set and the view are very Kurosawan and reminiscent of the opening scene of Dreams (1990), which Kurosawa made late in his career. Mick’s surreal vision in this particular scene is a telling of his impending death but also of all the dreams he had as a filmmaker–the visions he had for each actor and character were in themselves little dreams. Witnessing this before him all at once is like having his life flash before his eyes. This, again, alludes to his oncoming death. I could hear people protest to this interpretation stating that a suicide doesn’t count but I say death is death. Suicide counts. Directors are control freaks; perhaps Mick knew that he had prostate cancer and decided to take his life with his own hands, much like the late Tony Scott.
There are three elements that make this film worth the 2 hours of sitting (it felt like 3 hours because there were so many scenes, and every scene ends on some note of massive profundity that makes it seem as if it’s the last scene of the movie, except that the movie keeps going!–this made the film feel infinitely longer for me):
First is Luca Bigazzi, who also lensed Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) and This Must Be The Place (2011), as well as Abbas Kiarostami’s underwhelming Certified Copy (2010). He ensures that every frame of this film is a poetic jewel for the eye. The film is for the most part set in one resort which could’ve easily become a stale atmosphere but Bigazzi brings warmth, glitz and emotion to geometry like I’ve never seen before. The film is a delight to view from beginning to end because of his artful cinematography.
Second: The composition by David Lang whose music acts as the heart of the film fills the screen with nostalgia and elegance; “Simple Songs” sung by Korean soprano singer Sumi Jo, is cripplingly beautiful. Lang also composed for The Great Beauty and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Finally, Michael Caine’s performance is flawless. With every other character and actor, I sensed at least one moment of disingenuousness, but not at all with Caine, which is a testament to his mastery. He plays maestro, father, friend, mentor, composer, and husband Ballinger with all the sensitivity one could bring to a screen.