Two great veteran actors from either side of the Atlantic do their best with frustratingly uneven material in the new film by Sorrentino, whose The Great Beauty won last year's foreign-film Oscar.
The film's title is presumably ironic (a late exchange between Caine's character and a doctor suggests that youth is simply the ability to shrug off the cares of old age, which will come as cold comfort to anyone needing a hip replacement) since it's about two men in their twilight years.
Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired English composer who is evidently revered (although an ill-judged final scene suggests his work is somewhere between bel canto and Andrew Lloyd Webber).
He is recuperating in a spa in the Swiss Alps from a malaise which appears to be more spiritual than physical (bereavement is suggested) along with Mick Boyle (Keitel), an American filmmaker who is working on a script with a quartet of acolytes: their attempt to find an ending to a film that Boyle, oddly, calls his "testament" becomes a running gag.
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As the film opens, Ballinger is being courted by an emissary from Buckingham Palace (Macqueen, distressingly indistinguishable from his role as the PM's oily adviser in The Thick of It) who wants him to conduct his most famous work for Prince Philip's birthday. The composer demurs for "personal reasons" that do not become clear until near the end of a film that is a series of vignettes - some entertaining, many downright exasperating - adding up to meditation on ageing, youthful dreams and missed opportunities.
The two encounter a variety of characters in a variety of sometimes Fellini-esque sequences: Dano as an actor working on a role that is revealed as bad joke; Fonda, as an crumbling, foul-mouthed silver-screen diva type; a Latina Miss Universe and a shockingly overweight Diego Maradona (not together); and pop star Paloma Faith, playing herself, who has filched the husband of Ballinger's daughter and personal assistant Lena (Weisz).
As Rossini said of Wagner, this is a film full of beautiful moments but dreadful quarter-hours. Its ravishing visual sense is often wasted on banal ideas - Ballinger conducting an ensemble of bell-equipped cows is the most memorably dreadful.
Sorrentino's script suggests a poor command of the English idiom, which may explain the forced tone of much of the dialogue but in the end it's a film that doesn't have much to say about a much-visited idea and takes a rather long time to say it.
Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Running Time: 118 mins
Rating: M (Offensive language, nudity, sex scenes, sexual references)
Verdict: Great actors struggle with a very odd script.