"Youth" is a film that goes its own way. Quixotic, idiosyncratic, effortlessly moving, it's as much a cinematic essay as anything else, a meditation on the wonders and complications of life, an examination of what lasts, of what matters to people no matter their age.
As such it is a perfect fit for its singular director, Italy's Paolo Sorrentino, someone who, as his longtime producer Nicola Giuliano has said, is concerned with "trying to capture the human soul on film."
In his second English-language film, writer-director Sorrentino — whose 2013 film "The Great Beauty" won the foreign-language Oscar — is doing without his great acting collaborator Toni Servillo, who starred in the landmark "Il Divo." But he makes up for it with a stellar cast, led by a marvelous Michael Caine and including Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda, all doing excellent work.
In any language Sorrentino remains a thoroughly involving filmmaker, playful even when he is at his most serious and with a great visual sense, infusing so much interest in every aspect of his story that his minor characters remain on our minds quite as much as the protagonists.
Set in an upscale Swiss spa (and shot on location at the Berghotel Schatzalp, the inspiration for Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain"), "Youth" is a kind of landlocked "Ship of Fools" following the interactions of several characters during their stay at the resort.
The center of the story is long-retired English composer-conductor Fred Ballinger (Caine), who has been vacationing here for years in the company of his friend of six decades, Hollywood director Mick Boyle (Keitel).
Sorrentino has said that he wouldn't have made this film if Caine hadn't agreed to take the part of Ballinger, and in truth the 82-year-old actor's delicate, nuanced, faultlessly natural performance is the grounded rock on which everything else is built.
"Youth's" plot is not its main focus, but it kicks into motion when an emissary from Queen Elizabeth presents Ballinger with a request. It turns out that "Simple Song #3," a lovely piece of music he's written (and composed expressly for the film by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang), is Prince Philip's favorite.
Would Ballinger, the emissary asks, conduct the piece for an upcoming concert celebration of the prince's birthday? No, the musician says definitively, almost defiantly, he would not. His reasons? They're personal.
Involved in creative dilemmas of his own is director Boyle. He's brought five young screenwriters with him to try to thrash out (in a manner more suited to Italian filmmaking than the Hollywood way) a final draft of a film he hopes will be his testament as well as his reunion with Brenda Morel (a corrosive Fonda cameo), the celebrated actress who's been his muse.
Ballinger and Boyle are so close that the composer's daughter Lena (a fine Weisz), who also functions as his assistant, is married to Boyle's son. The old men commiserate about the state of their respective prostates, compare notes about a woman they were both in love with half a century ago and share private jokes and side bets about human behavior.
Taking it all in and with creative concerns of his own is Jimmy Tree, a major international star reminiscent of Johnny Depp who is at the spa to work up an approach to his next major role. Tree, a serious actor who shot to international stardom playing a robot in a Hollywood blockbuster, is ambivalent about which way his career should go. Dano, exceptionally good in a part that's a world apart from his fine work as Brian Wilson in "Love & Mercy," brings the perfect combination of bemused yet total charisma to the part.
Though this group of folks is the focus of "Youth's" plot, the presence of those minor characters gives the film the texture and sensibility that make it stand out.
Outstanding among these are the appropriately alluring Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), a love-struck mountaineering instructor (Robert Seethaler) and a retired South American soccer star (Roly Serrano), clearly inspired by Diego Maradona, who does things with a tennis ball that have to be seen to be believed.
Once you accept its offbeat rhythms, "Youth" is always involving, dealing not so much with nostalgia for that young state as with questions involving love, desire, memory, creativity and dreams for the future that can thrive or atrophy at any age. "Eliminate one person," Fred Ballinger says, "and all of a sudden the whole world changes." If "Youth" has a message, that just might be it.
MPAA rating: R, for graphic nudity, some sexuality and language
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes