'Youth': Director Paolo Sorrentino's magic is all smoke and mirrors

It's fun to see 'Youth' stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, as convalescents in a Swiss Alps spa, banter and harrumph, but Sorrentino can’t film anything without trying to turn it into a visual (and sometimes aural) aria.

Gianni Fiorito/Fox Searchlight/AP
'Youth' stars Michael Caine (r.) and Harvey Keitel (l.).

If I had to nominate one director in the world as the most overrated right now, I would go with Paolo Sorrentino, whose egregious, overblown “The Great Beauty” predictably won the Oscar for best foreign film. Now Sorrentino is back on the attack with “Youth,” slightly less overblown but no less egregious.

To the extent that it’s about anything other than fancy camera moves, it’s about Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a famous English conductor and composer, resolutely retired, and his longtime friend, Mick (Harvey Keitel), a still-active American movie director. Both are convalescing in a Swiss Alps spa, musing over their lives and loves. It’s fun to see these old pros banter and harrumph, and Caine, especially, strikes some plangent chords. (Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and Jane Fonda also turn up, underwhelmingly.)

Performances don’t seem to be primary for Sorrentino, though. He can’t film anything without trying to turn it into a visual (and sometimes aural) aria, and, well, he’s no Fellini. Even Fellini was often no Fellini, substituting fireworks for feeling. Sorrentino is what was bad about Fellini without any of the master’s redeeming greatness – his comprehension of people and their loneliness or, at best, his cinematic wizardry. Sorrentino’s magic is all smoke and mirrors. People calling this movie a visual feast must be awfully famished. Grade: C- (Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexuality, and language.)

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