This is one weird-ass time for movies right now.
In any other year, this would be the time when studios would be releasing their big awards contenders, to keep them fresh in the minds of audiences and awards voters when Oscar season comes around. These awards releases bleed over into January, when they can draw attention away from the surefire bombs getting swept under the rug.
But this year, we’ve got a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Everyone knew a long time ago that Episode VII would obliterate everything in its path. Which means that guaranteed duds could be safely released in late December and summarily banished to obscurity. Yet that didn’t take away from the necessity of getting awards contenders out in the open, even if they had to be pushed to the most limited of arthouse releases. The end result is that the no-effort garbage (ie: Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip) is competing with the crowd-pleasing counter-programming (ie: Sisters) for attention, while the legitimately good awards contenders are left out in the cold, hoping that maybe they’ll get some mainstream attention come awards season.
So here we are with Youth, one of the many possible awards candidates that had the misfortune of coming out right now. It comes to us from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino (previously responsible for something called This Must Be the Place), with a cast including such talents as Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and Jane Fonda in what’s basically an extended cameo.
And does the film deserve more attention and good press than it’s getting right now? Honestly, I’m still not sure I could tell you.
Our stage is set at a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps, where our characters are on their annual vacation. The plot isn’t exactly non-existent, but it’s definitely not the film’s first priority. Hell, I’m not even sure the plot was the second or third priority. It’s basically just a loosely organized collection of storylines running in parallel, frequently interrupted by long stretches of filler.
There’s Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a retired composer who’s been invited by the Queen of England to conduct his signature masterpiece for a prince’s birthday, even though he really doesn’t want to do it for personal reasons. There’s Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director who’s working with a crew of young writers to craft the script for his magnum opus. There’s Lena Ballinger (Fred’s daughter, played by Rachel Weisz), who’s just been dumped by her husband for a younger woman.
Incidentally, Lena’s husband (Julian, played by Ed Stoppard) just happens to be Mick’s son. And it’s perhaps worth noting that Julian’s new mistress is an actual pop singer named Paloma Faith, who plays herself in this movie for whatever reason.
Paul Dano plays Jimmy Tree, an actor who wants to be known as a bona fide artist instead of a robot he played for some stupid movie years ago. There’s Roly Serrano, playing a world-famous soccer player several ages past his prime. Jane Fonda gets one or two scenes as the actress who’s been Mick’s personal muse for over a decade. And they all join the roster of background and supporting characters who keep popping up repeatedly, nearly all of whom don’t even have names.
To give you an idea of how this movie is paced, the title doesn’t even appear on the screen until the 15-minute mark. There are huge stretches of the film in which nothing — and I do mean absolutely nothing — happens. I could write a long list of scenes that could have been rearranged in any order without compromising anything. The whole film is edited in a baffling way, with scenes awkwardly cut short and transitions that go from one completely unrelated thing to another. And the film does occasionally incorporate dream sequences and hallucinations, which does nothing to help the film’s airy and disjointed tone.
Yet the whole film is undeniably beautiful, in a “still photography” sort of way, but that’s not good enough for what’s supposed to be a motion picture. And as much as I want to say that the movie is a dull and stupid waste of time, I really can’t.
For one thing, there’s the cast. You’ve got Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Rachel Weisz proving throughout the entire picture why they should be known and respected as seasoned pros. And we mustn’t forget Paul Dano or Jane Fonda, both of whom make very strong impressions with what little screen time and/or plot impact they have.
But more than that, these actors all have such meaty stuff to work with. There’s definitely a sense that these characters have dimension, especially as we come to learn so much about them as they talk to each other throughout the film. It also helps that the dialogue is peppered with some solid lines and the rare effective joke. Perhaps most importantly, the actors are all given the chance to explore a wide variety of such profound themes as age, youth, mortality, loss, love, art, fame, obsolescence, and so on. There are some brilliant moments of clarity to be found in this picture, which is why it’s all the more frustrating that the rest of the film is so opaque.
I honestly don’t know what to make of Youth. Everything about its construction perplexes me. It may be gorgeous to look at and beautifully acted, but the editing and the script were put together in ways that make no sense. I’d call it boring and incompetent, but the themes are so compelling and presented with such passion that there’s no way this was the work of an idiot. So I can’t tell if all the shots of nothing happening are entirely gratuitous, and I can’t tell if the recurring background characters have some deeper symbolic meaning. As much as I want to call this a pretentious film, I’m really not sure.
The bottom line is that if you want a story that’s coherent and well-paced, look elsewhere. But if you’ve got the patience and the curiosity to try a bit of cinematic high art, give this one a rental and see what you think.