“You say that emotions are overrated. But that’s bullshit. Emotions are all we’ve got.”
There’s a fairly common Oscar and award season narrative for older actors. It doesn’t happen every year, but it’s semi regular. An older actor, who has been liked or loved for many, many years, takes on a role that’s all about coming to terms with aging. In an industry where people try to cling to youth for as long as possible, when an actor decides to embrace their age in anything half decent with a little sadness and contemplation, awards attention floods in. This year, the actor is Michael Caine, and the movie is Youth.
For the 20th year in a row, retired music composer Fred Ballinger (Caine) is holidaying at the same resort in Switzerland. His routine of various forms of massage and soaking on the pool is interrupted when a representative of Buckingham Palace arrives. Queen Elizabeth would like Fred to conduct a performance of his most famous piece of music at Prince Philip’s birthday. Fred declines for personal reasons and the signs of his deep and long depression over his absent wife begin to show.
Also staying at the resort is his daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz) whose husband leaves her after meeting a young, English pop star. Whose husband also happens to be the son of Fred’s lifelong best friend, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), who also happens to be staying at the resort. Mick, a legendary director, is there workshopping his latest screenplay with a group of young actors, and claims that it will be his last film. Fred and Mick strike up a friendship with young, Hollywood actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). Jimmy has his own issues, determined to be seen as a serous actor after years of being recognised for playing a robot in some cheesy sci-fi blockbuster.
When I first heard about Youth, it sounded like pretentious Oscar bait, or generic drama stuff about yet another sad sack barely able to go one after the loss of the love of their life. And writing my synopsis above, that’s exactly what it sounds like here too. But it’s not, it’s something more than that. Fred’s depression over his lost wife is pretty clichéd and nothing I haven’t seen plenty if times before, but the world around him is immensely interesting and quirky, without about become twee or precious.
The resort is populated with all sorts of eccentrics that serve a purpose, while never outstaying their welcome. Fred and Mick’s open conversations about their frustrations with aging and their many regrets feel real and genuine, not just the same old stuff. And each character’s individual struggles and issues compliment the others’ in a way that makes the big picture really impressive. None of these would have been a surprise if I had realised that Youth was made by Paollo Sorrentino, the bloke also responsible for The Great Beauty.
I heard about Youth because of the Michael Caine, old man, award season buzz. And I assume Keitel’s getting talked about in a similar way. And they deserve any awards attention they get. But Youth shouldn’t be getting talked about because of that. Youth should be getting talked about because it’s a great story, performanced amazingly by an awesome cast.