“Levity is an irresistible temptation”
What strange beauty writer/director Paolo Sorrentino finds within the sadness of his palatial Swiss Alps resort’s inhabitants in Youth. The story plays like a surrealistic existential revelation—the aftermaths of each character’s crisis as they discover exactly who they are in the midst of tragic knowing. Age transforms bodies and minds into a monotonous amalgam of flesh and fatigue, years worn as wrinkles and memory gaps while ego remains untouched except by the grace of but a single reveler who truly gets who we are when the hope of such appears its most futile. By the time we discover we miss our youthful vigor and looks the ability to reach back is gone. And any contemporary example of those things seems utterly unfamiliar.
But that’s okay because we lived it and we will be remembered even if it’s only for a day. We all leave our mark on those we’ve touched whether it was helping them reach their pinnacle of being or catalyzed the dismantling of it into a delusion-free reality some will never find the mindset to accept. To be replaced is common—expected even—and to be wanted a luxury we often cannot afford. People want us for what we’ve done rather than what we can do no matter how they spin their request. It’s the past that put us on their radar and the present is already too far removed. While outsiders keep us there, however, it’s the one place we strive to escape. Freedom forever trumps success.
The hotel Sorrentino places his little pieces of neurotic Zen facilitates this freedom as a respite from the real world. It’s a place where one can see an overweight Maradona hobbling with oxygen tank in tow while still kicking tennis balls like he was on an Argentinian pitch, a big-bosomed and bubbly Miss Universe projected upon by preconceptions of an ignorant public she can see right through (Madalina Diana Ghenea), or a young masseuse so passionate about the art of touch over conversation that her evenings consist of silent videogame dancing (Luna Zimic Mijovic). Any hotel has this potential for finding curious creatures—fascinating strangers all if you’re only inclined to say hello. If any universal human trait transcends culture and class it’s this need for a break.
So we move from one room to the next and watch nameless nudes in a sauna or well-dressed folk eating dinner as though a ritual not to be disturbed. It’s maestro Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) with whom we’re supposed to devote the greatest portion of our attention, but he proves more the lightning rod of which the eccentrics revolve. I think this is because he knows who he is. He may not have known an hour before meeting him—and definitely didn’t decades ago when daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) needed him most—but he does in this instant. Fred is happily retired even if he cannot stop his fingers from composing new works with his instrument of choice (a plastic candy wrapper) and the calm has allowed introspection.
Others hope for this type of clarity and are working tirelessly to find it. There’s Fred’s best friend and father-in-law to Lena, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). He’s a movie director of note crafting what he believes will be his “testament” alongside a brain trust of young, sardonic hipsters attempting to crack the elusive ending. There’s A-list actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) on-location in Europe to research his new role in comfort away from the hoards of fans who refuse to remember him out of the context of being “that robot” in Mr. Q. And don’t forget the Buddhist monk, faux mute sexual deviants, shy escort awkwardly winking at prospective customers, and child violinist practicing, practicing, practicing. Do they all discover their moment of joy? Yes.
But the real question should be whether or not it will last because while they can work towards a goal and achieve it, that finish line is hardly ever the end. Our satisfaction is clouded by ego and vanity, the words of outsiders falling into the camp of unthinking yes man or cruelly worded dissent. A guy like Fred ignores both—the motivation for his quiet sojourn into the sunset a secret only he needs to know. If the Queen of England wants him to conduct his most famous piece for Prince Philip’s birthday and he says no, he’ll harbor no guilt or regret. It isn’t a selfish decision either. He’s under no obligation to sell himself to anyone and neither should anyone else. We each owe nothing.
Love therefore becomes the major theme behind each vignette of explosive emotion or fortune cookie pithiness. Love for your art. Love for your spouse. Love for humanity. And don’t forget the antithesis hatred for everything else: love that’s described as pure turning on a dime whether a result of the lust for a pop star (Paloma Faith) or money (Jane Fonda‘s Brenda Morel, the star that Mick “made”) so there’s only vehemence or defeat. Mortality is a concept they look to define in the midst of this love—some ready to let it take them and others still fighting tooth and nail. Strangely, though, there’s no jealousy. Everyone knows they’re as good as their replacement and so they move forward with a steely jaw of determination.
The result is a quirky situational comedy with as many instances of profundity as there are throwaway gags. Sometimes this dynamic delivers the best scenes of the year and others head-scratching missteps. There’s heart to Dano’s quest for adoration beyond lowest common denominator consumption and yet I’m not sure what’s going on when that journey leaves him forlorn in a Hitler costume. Conversely I loved the sweetness of mountain climber Luca Moroder (Robert Seethaler) arriving as a trying-too-hard sad sack who wins us over with his quiet compassion. And it’s all shot with a laboriously watchful pan of expertly cropped compositions of gorgeous splendor by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi while music sung or played relentlessly fills our ears. Each little sound or view speaks volumes about life’s personal pleasures.
 Michael Caine as “Fred” and Harvey Keitel as “Mick” in YOUTH. Photo by Gianni Fiorito. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Michael Caine as “Fred” and Paul Dano as “Jimmy” in YOUTH. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Jane Fonda as “Brenda” in YOUTH. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved