On a holiday retreat in the Swiss Alps, orchestra composer and conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is being urged out of retirement to play his ‘Simple Songs’ for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on the Prince’s birthday. While constantly replying ‘no,’ Fred’s daughter and secretary of sorts Lena (Rachel Weisz) joins him in the Alps as she sorts out her own frustrations with her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard), who’s still in London. Meanwhile, Fred’s old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director, is attempting to write an ‘opus’ with a team of five young screenwriters. During their stay, the group contemplate life, one another and the other characters they encounter at the retreat, including an out-of-work actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano).
This movie is a mess. It’s a frustrating artsy-fartsy mess, to be precise.
Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty (2013), seems certain that there is indeed real subtext within this picture by way of appealing to aesthetics — a soft classical score occasionally charms, lush scenery and tenderly lit scope cinematography intrigues, contemplative looks by characters might arouse curiosity, but as a combined effect, these elements don’t add up to much. Why? The film’s scenes are terribly disconnected and miss many opportunities to contrast and comment on each other.
I find movies like this insulting and perhaps I could let part of it go, if it weren’t for the fact that there are two scenes that attempt to shove down the throats of its audience the whole meaning of the film, without proper context or seeding — now that’s just bad storytelling.
One of these scenes is with Paul Dano’s muted actor Jimmy Tree who tells us that the point of living is desire — this may give some thought to Lena’s narrative, but the scene is played with her dad, Fred, who clearly is not thinking about desire, but rather his future demise. Adding further confusion is that Jimmy’s story largely involves sitting around watching performances and getting mildly offended when his famous mainstream role as a robot is brought up. Plenty of desire here, clearly.
The other horrible ‘meaning’ scene is with Mick Boyle who explains that emotions are important before suddenly doing something which doesn’t seem to involve much of that at all. Mick’s story had much potential to grow, especially as one of the highlights of the whole film involves a cameo by Jane Fonda, This Is Where I Leave You (2014), as Brenda Morel, a diva of an actress, who tells it to Mick straight about his current predicament. Scenes with Mick’s motley crew of screenwriters are occasionally amusing, but largely irrelevant.
Speaking of irrelevant, at a hefty 124 minutes, there is certainly much in this movie that doesn’t add up to anything. There are delicately shot montages of the daily routines of the retreat – people getting naked, walking about like zombies and sitting in saunas to soft choral music – I get the implication of days gone by, but it really just reeks of a director who wants viewers to stroke their chins and think about ‘art.’ How about that overly long music video dream with English singer Paloma Faith? I haven’t even mentioned the most left-field cut-away motif of a young masseur playing Dance Dance Revolution on her console, in slow motion no less. So slow, so deep, so unnecessary. ‘So … when will it end?’ I wondered.
I’ll say this much, the central cast do reasonably well considering the awful monologues they’re sometimes forced to expel, with Harvey Keitel, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), being the pick of the bunch and Rachel Weisz, The Lobster (2015), having a moment about her ‘Mummy and Daddy’ that seems destined to be played during an inevitable award nomination.
I couldn’t help but wonder how such a top tier cast got roped into accepting such a poor script. Oh wait, I know — who could possibly resist an all expenses paid retreat to the Swiss Alps? At least the location looks great on screen — cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, This Must Be The Place (2011) probably got the best deal of all, getting great shots for his next showreel.
To my utter surprise, there are indeed people who love this film — good for you and I genuinely hope it spoke to you on a deep level — I’ve obviously missed a lot and can’t bring myself to revisit the experience in an attempt to dig out what I earnestly feel isn’t there. I can only tell you I was sincerely grateful for the ale I bought myself before the session and I can’t wait to have another one.
I wonder if I can book a flight to the Alps soon.
1 / 5 – Don’t Waste Your Time
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
Youth is released through Studio Canal Australia