“Youth,” writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s visually extravagant meditation on old age, is the simple, near-plotless tale of two old friends — a retired composer and orchestra director (Michael Caine) and a filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) — vacationing at a luxurious Swiss spa and resort.
Fred, the musician, has come at the insistence of his daughter (Rachel Weisz), who has arranged daily medical checkups and massages for him. Mick, the director, has brought his stable of writers with him to help hammer out the script for his latest project, the unironically titled “Life’s Last Day.” The two pals stroll through the hotel grounds and engage in chitchat. Their friendship has endured because they only talk about trivial things. They don’t challenge each other the way other people challenge them.
The movie sounds insufferable — two old white rich dudes looking back on their lives and regretting their mistakes — but Sorrentino turns the script into a symphonic celebration of the grandeur of movies. Although not quite as over-the-top visually as his Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” “Youth” is still spectacular, filled with tableaux (a group of people sweating silently inside a sauna, a naked man and his prostitute inside a hotel room) that juxtapose the desires and personalities of young and old without dialogue.
At times, the film verges on becoming a musical (it opens with the house band at the hotel performing an ebullient cover of Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love” poolside while the camera circles around the singer). Other times, “Youth” flirts with otherworldly fantasy, especially when Sorrentino allows Federico Fellini’s obvious influence to surge to the forefront.
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The supporting characters are memorable: In addition to Weisz’s fiery turn as Caine’s resentful daughter, Paul Dano shows up as a Hollywood actor preparing for a difficult role. As a hot-tempered veteran actress, Jane Fonda almost steals the film with just one scene in which she informs Keitel why she won’t be able to do his movie after all.
But the heart of “Youth” is the lifelong bond between two men, both of them artists, who have taken radically different approaches to living out their golden years. Age is more than just a number, “Youth” tells us. What really matters, though, is whether you’re going to let that number define you.
Rated R. Time: 2:04.