“The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped.” — Cesare Pavese

There is always the danger that when one Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel get together, one thinks, “The old bad Lieutenant meets the aging Alfie,” so dramatically different are their personas, their styles, careers.

Of course, writer/director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) doesn’t make fun movies; he makes gorgeous tapestries, panoramas studded with unique humans, verdant pastures, opulent ballrooms and manicured lawns littered with suffering souls, broken hearts.

The great Michael Caine is Fred Ballinger, a dignified, cynical and bitter retired composer/conductor, an aging legend with secrets in his pocket, and there are many pockets in this film.

Keitel is Mick Boyle, a once prominent Hollywood director, famous for pretentious schlock and “nearly” semi-good movies, now almost forgotten at the end of his career and life.

Fred and Mick are here at a fabulous spa in the French Alps, Mick with an entourage of scripting minions and Fred just to fade away into the mist. Health issues are touched on but not resolved.


Both have careers loaded with regrets and sins, Mick with his flotsam, Fred with his jetsam.

Paolo throws in the jaded Hollywood actor (Paul Dano, being very good at his usual wistful ennui) cast to play Hitler.

Rachel Weisz is there to take our breath away again with her intensity, beauty and skill, as Fred’s damaged daughter, who, at the opening, is jilted at the airport by her husband, (Ed Stoppard, playwright Tom Stoppard’s son) who has left her for a rock star who is “better in bed.”

Sorrentino, ever the cinematic dreamscape painter, loads his Alpine spa lawns and rooms with a parade of Felliniesque characters: a woman in an elevator who wears a half-hijab that seems to have been designed by Yoko Ono, a 300-pound whale of a Latin man with a tattoo of Beethoven on his massive back (four minutes are given to him bouncing a tennis ball with his foot) and a wealthy middle-aged “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” couple in matching beige, who sit in the dining room each night without speaking until a violent final scene erupts. We meet them again in a steamy sylvan sex scene.

Each room in the vast spa, reminiscent of Kubrick’s “The Shining,” has its weird guests: A Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea) who fancies taking nude baths with the onlooking geezers, and a wonderful Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk) who promises to levitate. Wait for that.

“Youth” ambles along, putting us into a kind of pastel dream state, with its long conversations about youth and aging and death, until, near the end, when one of Mick’s ancient conquests, a blonde, fading, old actress who built her career on servicing producers, arrives.


We are stunned and delighted that is the great Jane Fonda, wrinkled and rouged powdered and painted, giving a top-of-the-line performance, and at the top of her voice, no less.

Fonda deliciously allows Luca Bigazzi’s camera to focus on each wrinkle, each knob and frizzy curl. It’s a star turn, clearly out of joint, but wonderful.

The score is haunting, even though at times inadvertently lulling us into a meditative mood, with the artistry of the Manchester quintet, and then jolting us awake with a YouTube video by the British rocker Paloma Faith.

“Youth” is a what we used to call, back in the ’60s, a “trip”; and despite its flaws, it floats in color and sound and boasts a superb cast. Fonda, Caine, Keitel, Weisz. What could go wrong?

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor and the author of “Will Write for Food.”

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