For the ages

Nothing wrong with a couple of dudes out in the woods, giving each other back massages.

Nothing wrong with a couple of dudes out in the woods, giving each other back massages.

Rated 4.0

Oh, how those marketing people can be so deceiving.

From the previews, Youth looks like Cocoon minus the glowing aliens, a goofy old coot movie with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel leering at pretty ladies in the swimming pool and complaining about their prostates.

In actuality, it is far from being anything like Cocoon and, with the exception of some darkly humorous laughs and, yes, a couple of prostate jokes, not something I would classify as a comedy.

Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino isn’t interested in pleasantries or pulling punches. His movie is a beautifully brutal, almost dangerously honest take on artists and artists growing old. It’s also just a little bit crazy at times, to a point where maybe I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if crazy aliens sprang up from the bottom of the swimming pool.

Caine, in one of the best and most quietly understated performances of his career, plays retired composer Fred Ballinger. Fred is on holiday at a dreamy Swiss resort with his daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz, delivering the goods), and his film director friend, Mick Boyle (Keitel, basically reminding you that he is still awesome).

Lena’s husband dumps her for a vacuous pop star that performs miracles in bed, sending her into a tailspin and giving Fred something else to worry about besides the miniscule level of pee traveling through his urethra. Mick, working on a film that doesn’t yet have an ending, remains a positive force for Fred, even though he’s become forgetful.

Representing the younger side of the artistic trade is Jimmy Tree (the great Paul Dano), a popular actor preparing for a big role. Jimmy has done his share of art films, but most people remember him for his role as a robot. Those people are kind enough to remind him of that role with seemingly every instance of human contact.

I used the word brutal up above, and I’m going to drop the word again. This movie is brutal. Bru-tal. When Fred finally lets an emissary for the Queen know what he really thinks about their offer for a knighthood, it’s one nasty exchange. When Lena gives her dad the what-for during a mud bath, the world stops. When Jimmy meets Miss Universe, and she brings up that damned robot, watch out. As far all-time screamers, the revelation of the role Jimmy is preparing for is quite the shocker.

The beauty of Sorrentino’s film is that these brutal moments are handled in nuanced, subdued fashion. The script is eloquent, intelligent, and often heartbreaking. Many of these characters will not have happy endings.

As an aging actress who has a caustic message for Mick, Jane Fonda shows up late in the movie and delivers simply one of the greatest scenes of her career. Fonda and Keitel sparring in this scene are as scary and punishing as anything in Creed.

Adding to the wonderful sound of the actors speaking their rich dialogue is a score by David Lang that’s every ounce as beautiful as the stunning camerawork by Luca Bigazzi. Sorrentino is apparently a big Fellini fan, which is evident in the film’s finale.

It must be noted that Sorrentino is only 45 years old. This meditation on aging seems to be coming from somebody who has logged at least 75 years on the planet, but no, he’s not even 50. That makes his achievement all the more impressive. I’m sure, though, there are many 70-plus individuals on the planet who might tell Sorrentino to cheer up a little bit. Getting older isn’t always as dour as the scenarios played out in this film.

Then again, we are looking at actors, composers and writers here, and when heavy narcissism and above-average powers of perception are mixed with aging, that can be a lethal cocktail.

As for the finale, Youth finishes with either a crowning moment for Fred or his worst nightmare, depending upon how you choose to take it in. The final look in Caine’s eyes says it all for me.