Youth [La giovinezza] (2015)


Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

At this time of year, movie houses are suddenly filled with films clearly intended as “award bait,” each one marketed as the next big winner in an effort to attract your attention and your box office dollars.  Discriminating movie-goers, of course, know that most of these are often just the usual mainstream studio fare masquerading as art films- but usually, in their midst, one can find the genuine article.  This year, one such contender is “Youth,” an English language film by Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino.

With an impressive cast of veteran heavy-hitters, “Youth” belies its title by centering on two elderly characters- Fred and Mick (played, respectively, by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel), who are vacationing at a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps.  Fred, a renowned conductor and composer, is faced with a hard-to-decline invitation to come out of retirement for a very special command performance, which brings up long-suppressed feelings over his absent wife; Mick, a respected film director, clings to his self-acknowledged illusions while crafting the script for his next movie, which he envisions as a definitive “testament” about the nature of life and art.  Personal struggles notwithstanding, these two old friends spend their time together talking only of “good things,” and mingling with the other guests, who include (among others) a hot-shot movie star, a now-obese former soccer legend, and the newly-crowned Miss Universe.  Clearly, this hotel boasts an exclusive clientele.

If the above description doesn’t read like much of a synopsis, that’s because “Youth” is not really a plot-driven film.  Sure, things happen- Fred’s daughter (Rachel Weisz) has some romantic complications, and a number of background characters have their own dramatic arcs throughout- but these serve more to illuminate the ongoing meditation that is the true focus here.  Instead of rising and falling action, we are given ebbing and swelling emotion, conveyed less by what we see and hear than by what we feel- or, perhaps more accurately, what we sense.  In this way, Sorrentino allows us to experience his characters at an empathic level, and turns what seems to be a story about the existential struggles of privileged people into a contemplation of the human need to connect.

This is no simple accomplishment, but Sorrentino makes it seem effortless.  His movie is a study of the contrast between surfaces and what is beneath them; from beginning to end we are treated to atmospheric, richly-detailed visuals, photographed (by Luca Bigazzi) with an eye towards capturing both the idyllic settings and the subtle activity within them.  Breezes billow through canopies, steam rises from still water, sunlight pierces shadows; and populating the scene are the placid figures of the hotel’s guests, evoking speculation about the interplay of forces taking place behind their own inscrutable exteriors.  The cumulative effect of this visual counterpoint is a growing awareness of the inner lives of the characters which gets its ultimate payoff in a moving finale involving a performance of one of Fred’s songs- actually a piece written by the film’s composer, David Lang, which would get my vote for the Best Song Oscar, if I had one.

Of course, it’s not all accomplished with subtle cinematic style; a great deal also depends upon the characters themselves- and, therefore, upon the players who portray them.  The perfect front man for all this under-the-surface exploration is Caine, who gives us yet another sublime performance; his Fred is a masterpiece of understatement, conveying monumental passions with the slightest quaver of his voice or nuance of his expression.  Keitel, as Mick, provides a fitting contrast with his earthy, passionate persona, and there are equally effective contributions by Weisz and Paul Dano (as the movie star).  However, it’s Jane Fonda, in a brief-but-show-stealing turn as Mick’s muse and favorite actress, who makes the most spectacular impression; she explodes into the proceedings like a thunderstorm, and the effect of her performance lingers for the remainder of the film.

“Youth” is one of those movies that are hard to recommend with certainty.  Despite its familiar, English-speaking cast, it’s as European as can be; Sorrentino invokes his idol, Fellini, with situational references (there are clear parallels to “8 1/2”), stylistic homage, circus imagery, unabashed symbolism, and infusions of surrealism.  In addition, with its languid pace and heavy reliance on subtext, it often runs the risk of alienating viewers who prefer more actively engaging fare.  For myself, I found it intellectually challenging, emotionally complex, and deeply resonant; if that description appeals to you, I encourage you to see it for yourself.  At the least, you will be treated to a display of artistry by all of its participants; odds are good, though, that you will also walk out of the theater with a deeper connection to your own humanity- and in today’s world, that can only be good thing.

Nine to Five (1980)

Today’s cinema adventure: Nine to Five, the 1980 comedy caper that became a popular hit on the strength of its pro-feminist sentiment and made country-western singer Dolly Parton into a bona fide movie star by teaming her with established box office draws Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.  Following the exploits of three long-suffering office workers whose fantasies of revenge against their chauvinistic and dishonest boss become reality when they believe they have inadvertently poisoned him, director-and-co-writer (with Patricia Resnick) Colin Higgins attempts to mine laughs from the situation as his trio of heroines take advantage of their accidental roles as champions of female empowerment to strike some serious blows against the male-dominated order and implement sweeping workplace reforms in the world of corporate greed in which they are employed.  However, despite the considerable chemistry generated by its three stars and its frequent use of broad slapstick, the film contains few laugh-out-loud moments; most of the comedy seems predictable, falling back on the familiar clichés of countless movies that came before, with the result that the humor feels forced, imposed upon a story with higher aims in order to make it more palatable.  Higgins’ direction, however, does a marvelous job of creating the impression that there is a lot more smart, funny content here than there actually is: a terrific opening montage (truthfully, the film’s best sequence) sets the stage by showing us an entire city’s worth of hassled, stressed-out, put-upon commuters struggling to start yet another demeaning, frustrating day at work; and the use of a seventies-flavored realism in the lighting and cinematography contrasts nicely with the candy-colored trappings imposed upon the grim, utilitarian settings, reinforcing the theme of humanity struggling to assert itself in an oppressive environment.  As for the performances, the three stars are unquestionably delightful together; individually, however, one can’t quite escape the feeling that something is missing.  Fonda seems out of place as the recent divorcee braving the workplace for the first time, wearing her persona of sheltered naïveté like an ill-fitting costume; and Tomlin seems equally uncomfortable in the role of an exceptional woman whose gifts have been long subjugated, exuding a subdued bitchiness that somehow feels more bitter and mean than it might if she truly sank her teeth into it.  That leaves Parton to shine, which she does, stealing every scene with her now-familiar brand of sweet-but-feisty charm; and her refreshing energy is enough to overcome the shortfalls in her co-stars’ efforts and unite the trio as a formidable team; though the ultimate effect is a suggestion that it is their combined strength that gives them their power, it seems unlikely that this was intentional.  As for the remaining cast, Dabney Coleman is so on-target as the ladies’ loathsome boss that the character shaped and limited his subsequent career irrevocably; and veterans Elizabeth Wilson and Sterling Hayden (in one of his final screen appearances) add a touch of distinction to roles which are otherwise just office stereotypes.

Nine to Five became an instant hit upon release and remains a kind of minor classic today despite its numerous flaws; indeed, despite my above criticisms, I find myself holding on to a fond memory of it.  It’s a hard film not to like, one that seems greater than the sum of its parts, inspiring its audience to cheer on its protagonists, and providing an enjoyable- if unremarkable- two hours’ worth of entertainment.  Perhaps its staying power is due to its place in history; it represents a final flourish of seventies liberalism, a celebration of progressive populist values coming just before the Reagan era rolled over the cultural landscape, re-shaping it with trickle-down economics and populating it with voraciously greedy yuppies.  Watching it today, one can’t escape a feeling of bittersweet irony: its wish-fulfillment fantasy resonates with the cause of the underdog, those overworked and underpaid minions of the corporate empire, and seems brimming with the promise that social attitudes were poised to bring about the change depicted within; in fact, the opposite proved to be true- the liberality of the seventies was about to be shelved for a decade of self-aggrandizing greed.  In a way, the film foreshadows this, too: it’s very telling that the three heroines of Nine to Five succeed by beating their oppressor at his own manipulative, dishonest game instead of changing it for the better; and in the final moments we are informed (by the obligatory “where are they now?” subtitles) that two of them will abandon the fight for equality in favor of more traditional forms of feminine success.  Still, though it does less redefining of women’s roles in the workplace than reinforcing of the old stereotype of women as the unseen force behind the scenes, there is something gratifying about watching these three feminine underdogs stick it to the man; and that alone is enough to make Nine to Five seem as infectious and invigorating as its beloved title song.