This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
"Youth" is a bombastic dramatic-comedy about emotions that are, to paraphrase Editor-in-Chief Matt Zoller Seitz, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Small gestures and inconsequential routines are routinely given momentous importance because ultimately, no one character is more wise than anyone else. "Youth" is, in that sense, an anti-elegiac film where characters mull over commonplace emotions—self-love, pride, survivor's guilt—but ultimately realize that their perspectives are limited by their individual circumstances.
Co-writer/director Paolo Sorrentino ("The Great Beauty," "This Must Be the Place") leaves viewers with the certainty that they not only know as much as the characters played by Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano, and Rachel Weisz play, but probably more. There's great comfort in reaching that conclusion: "Youth" climaxes with a beautiful, heart-breaking operatic medley entitled "Simple Songs." The piece's orchestration, like its lyrics—"I've got a feeling. I live near. I live for you now."—is not remarkable unto itself. But the wealth of emotions that soprano singer Sumi Jo conveys through her heart-breaking performance confirms the deceptive power of "Youth," a big film about small sentiments.
Retirement has not bestowed magical gifts of hindsight to music composer Fred Ballinger (Caine). There is, however, an unquestionably romantic appeal to his solitude. Ballinger, like Mick Boyle (Keitel), a washed-up filmmaker and fellow self-sequestered exile, trundles through wild-flower-riddled, sun-dappled grassy fields at a Swiss spa. Fred shoos away appointments and offers made to him through daughter Lena (Weisz) and entertains hangers-on like jaded young actor Jimmy Tree (Dano) with pained bemusement. Fred sees Mick struggling with a comeback project—a script whose ending never seems satisfactorily profound—and feels better about turning down the Queen of England's invitation to perform his "Simple Songs" for the Prince. Life holds no mystery for Fred, and he's ok with that.
Sorrentino infrequently stumbles over one bald metaphor too many, like when Fred dismisses a Buddhist monk because he knows "[he] can't levitate" by sheer force of concentration/meditation. But more often than not, the strength of "Youth" comes from the isolated nature of its major set pieces. There are common themes that unite the film's quasi-Fellini-esque episodes, like the elderly couple who never talk at dinner, or the Miss Universe pageant winner who turns out to be smarter than she looks. But each imagistic sequence in "Youth" is like an island that happens to be united to other free-standing islands. Each scene has a life of its own.