Federico Fellini without a sense of humor is like a bowl of pasta e fagioli – a watery bowl, served at room temperature – without noodles. That’s what we get in “Youth,” writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning foreign film “The Great Beauty.”
If “Beauty” seemed like Sorrentino’s tribute to “La Dolce Vita,” Fellini’s affectionate but sardonic look at the excesses of life in Rome, “Youth” would be his “8 1/2.” It takes place in a spa filled with burned-out artists and eccentrics. One of the two main characters, American film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), can’t find an ending for a long-gestating movie. The surroundings are visually beautiful, eerie and often reveal bits of behavior that will never be explained. (Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi matches his fine work on “Beauty.”)
Yet for all the talk about passion, the main feeling “Youth” conveys is self-pity. Boyle frets over his last film, a “testament” that must sum up his career. British composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), who’s either permanently blocked or just retired, turns down a knighthood because he refuses to conduct one of his beloved pieces for Queen Elizabeth. American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) mopes about his status as a comedy icon and ponders how to play Hitler.
Things come to life briefly when Rachel Weisz turns up as Fred’s daughter, whose husband (dead-eyed Ed Stoppard) jilts her for a British pop star. Weisz’s heartfelt anger and pain suddenly show us what the movie might have been, before she and everyone else slip back into a doze.
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Keitel delivers lines in such unconvincing fashion that he seems to have been dubbed by someone for whom English is a second language. Caine rouses himself once in a while but mostly sleepwalks; he plays apathy without irony, an unwise choice. Dano – no, there’s really nothing worth saying. And Jane Fonda, made up to look like a 75-year-old prostitute along the Via Veneto, “speaks truth” to Boyle in an embarrassingly stagy but blessedly brief performance.
Meanwhile, a parade of mimes and dancing masseuses starts and stops between the encounters. Naked old people, who look like they’re waiting for the ferryman to carry them over the River Styx into Hades, mournfully swim and take mud baths and droop in saunas. Gorgeous young women (no young men) also turn up in the altogether.
I guess we’re meant to think all these people have lost their passions and now lead empty, hollow lives. But Fellini would have made that point with an imp’s smile, not an undertaker’s frown.
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda.
Writer-Director: Paolo Sorrentino.
Length: 118 minutes.
Rating: R (graphic nudity, some sexuality, and language).