The setting of “Youth,” Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, is an Alpine resort — a picturesque place rich with cultural associations and full of rich, cultured guests. Even if most people in the audience have never been to such a spot, it may nonetheless ring a few bells and jog some literary and cinematic memories. We’ve been here before. Was it “The Magic Mountain” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel”? “The Good Soldier”? “Last Year at Marienbad”?
It’s all the same. Not really, of course. These are highly specific mountains and trees, and the people gamboling and gambling in their shadows are exquisite in their individuality. But still. Mr. Sorrentino’s camera glides across a landscape pocked with signifiers of European Decadence, one of the continent’s most durable and distinguished exports.
We are here to contemplate a civilization that has been declining, with sighs and kisses and world-weary lyricism, for a very long time. So long that decline has become its own kind of vigor. On the eve of World War I, and in its aftermath, aristocrats and artists walked these grounds in tuxedos and evening gowns. They came back in the ’50s and ’60s for whatPauline Kael memorably called “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties.”
She didn’t think they were all that much fun. I’ve always loved them — especially the ones hosted by Fellini and Antonioni, to which I was too young to be invited — and Mr. Sorrentino concocted a pretty good one a couple of years ago, a meditation on stasis and hedonism aptly called “The Great Beauty.” That film, an Oscar winner set amid a drifting Roman literary and social elite, pulled off the nifty trick of combining spiritual emptiness with aesthetic repletion, so that you could walk away feeling both starved and satisfied, exhilarated and inexpressibly triste. The notable absence of any whisper of Italy’s social, economic and political crises was not necessarily a sign of disengagement, since the obliviousness of the Italian elite was one of that film’s main themes.
In “Youth,” the melancholy is more explicit, and appears, at least on the surface, to be individual rather than systemic. And universal, rather than tied to any particular facts of geography and history. It’s a movie about getting old, which happens to everyone. In the movie’s view of life, this happens with special poignancy to men.
Mr. Sorrentino’s concentration on the pathos of male senescence is an aspect of the film’s nostalgia. His main characters are two aging artists, friends since way back and easygoing twilight companions. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a prominent composer in semi-retirement, his longed-for serenity disrupted by the marital crisis of his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), and by the attentions of an emissary from the British royal family, who wants Fred to conduct a command performance of one of his best-loved works. Meanwhile, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a filmmaker, has gathered a team of young screenwriters to help him cook up what he hopes will be his final masterpiece, the capstone of a storied career.
Mick and Fred may belong to a fading world of high culture and jet set glamour, but they share their rarefied aerie with a rock star (Paul Dano) and a recent Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea). Lena pursues a romance with a rock climber, and other guests involve themselves in sexual and metaphysical shenanigans. The two old pals reminisce about lost loves, one of whom shows up, briefly and memorably, in the person of Jane Fonda.
Mr. Keitel and Mr. Caine are pleasant company, even if it too often sounds as if they were speaking lines translated into English. Mr. Sorrentino’s pictorial sense remains exquisite, as it was in “The Great Beauty” and, before that, in “This Must Be the Place” and “The Consequences of Love.” As befits a movie about a composer, the music (by David Lang) makes its presence felt in more than a merely decorative manner. It carries the intimation of something deeper and grander into this minor fable of waning potency.
The problem with “Youth” is not that it’s empty — the accusation Kael and others lodged against Mr. Sorrentino’s precursors — but that it’s small. Its imagination feels shrunken and secondhand, in spite of the gorgeous vistas and beautiful naked women. Or actually, because of them.
Good as it looks, the film starts to feel like an airline magazine collaboratively produced by the editorial staffs of Playboy and Modern Maturity. The wonder of nature is assumed, rather than explored, and the psychological insights are narrow and dreary. Artists are men. Women are their muses, their objects and their burdens. This notion has always been sexist, but it hasn’t always been boring. Can we please move on to the after-party?
“Youth” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Hubba hubba. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.