As if you couldn’t tell by the title and the cast, “Youth” is a movie about the passing of time and how we may differ in our approach to dealing with the inevitability of death that awaits us all and the possible futility of life and what we take from it while in the moment. A story about lost loves, dashed dreams and broken hearts, as well as appreciation of the past, hope for the future and a strange optimism for the present, this is the kind of movie that can affect you emotionally but only if you let it, if you allow it to wash over you, burrow into you and meld with your own psyche, so that you can see yourself reflected in at least one of its characters.
Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired composer and conductor enjoying a quiet and lazy vacation at a hoity-toity resort in the Swiss Alps when an emissary from the Queen of England visits him to ask if he would come out of retirement for one performance for the Queen and her grandson. Fred refuses to do so for “personal” reasons, but the invitation throws him for a bit of a loop, as he wasn’t prepared to even think about doing something like that, and now it is making him feel some emotions that he’s been stowing away for years. His past as a hugely successful conductor is closely linked to his wife, and now in this moment in this resort he is thinking about her with obvious regret as to how he lived and what became of her (something we do not learn the full extent of until the end of the film). It doesn’t help that his personal assistant is also his daughter (Rachel Weisz), and when her husband leaves her for a pop star, she has her own breakdown and vents by yelling at her father and accusing him of being a shitty husband and not the best father. Not exactly what a person wants to hear in the twilight of his or her life.
While Fred is retired and actively trying not to work, his film maker friend Mick (Harvey Keitel) is staying at the same resort on a working vacation, holed up in one of the rooms with a group of young writers, trying to craft a screenplay that Mick calls his “testament.” He struggles with coming up with the ending with the other writers, but mostly he’s pressing forward, sure of himself and his work. That is, at least, until he is confronted with his recent artistic output and told that his work doesn’t mean shit anymore and that no one will care about his his so-called testament, and that does not sit well with him. Also struggling with his own professional life is a person who is closer to the beginning than he is the end, an actor (Paul Dano) who resents his most popular role as a robot in a movie, a role that he feels overshadows everything else he has done and wants to do. He is still a young man, but he has the resentfulness of an older person who can see the finish line and doesn’t like the journey it took to get there.
The fact is that “Youth” is a fairly sad movie, though not necessarily through the things that actually happen, but instead just by the general feeling of it all. Fred drifts around the hotel, on a vacation ostensibly though we don’t really know from what he is vacationing, as he doesn’t work and doesn’t seem to have any responsibilities to tend to. Even when someone asks what he’s going to do after this vacation ends, he merely replies that he’ll be back to the usual routine, which sounds like lots of lounging around and turning down gigs and book offers and the like. Fred may still be alive, but it appears as if someone needs to remind him of that. Conversely, Mick knows he is alive and wants to make use of his precious time left on his mortal coil, but he seems to be in need of someone to tell him that he’s at the end of his rope and he needs to let go of his aspirations and simply move on. Neither man seems very happy at all at this point in their lives, and if they can’t find happiness in the end, then when could they possibly find it?
“Youth” is a gorgeous movie and well done, though it does feel a little incomplete. In addition to Fred and Mick (and Fred’s daughter), there are other characters who drift in and out of the story and their lives, and we only get snippets of these people, young and old, famous and unknown, hotel visitors and hotel workers. These people seem to mostly exist just to give us something to contrast our main characters to, like the young workers toiling away at their jobs, or the Miss Universe winner who lounges nude in front of the two men, reminding them and us about the huge gulf between her liveliness and lack of inhibitions and their fixation on their mortality. And while pleasantly arty, it just all feels like it is lacking a certain something. The film starts out strong but does meander here and there, especially toward the end, and while it does all end strongly, it seems to add up to something a little more slight than originally intended.
Still, this is a good movie, though maybe because I was just in a good mindset to see something like this. I appreciate a movie that does take its time and has no problem with throwing in a little random magical realism here and there, but I could see how other people would see this movie as slow or even a little pretentious. That’s not me, though. I am glad I saw “Youth,” as it did feel like this was worth my time.