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Michael Caine Brings the Power of Age to 'Youth'

Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda costar in a lyrical drama

(Video) 'Youth' Movie Trailer: A retired orchestra conductor is on holiday with his daughter and his film director best friend in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip's birthday.

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 58 minutes

Stars: Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

En español | Artfully dreamlike and boasting towering performances by three legendary actors, Youth is a mesmerizing meditation on age, beauty and friendship.

Fred (Michael Caine) is a retired classical-music composer; Mick (Harvey Keitel) is a veteran filmmaker. Nearing their 80s, they meet up for a few weeks, as they do every year, at a once-elegant Swiss health spa. Like their surroundings, the two live among echoes of former glory while facing the realities of decay. An emissary from Queen Elizabeth arrives, begging Fred (to no avail) to conduct a command performance of his most famous work, written decades ago. And Mick, accompanied by a team of young scriptwriters, hopes to recapture his early successes with one final masterwork, which he hopes will star his longtime leading lady (Jane Fonda). Into this mix drops Fred's daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), whose baggage comprises much more than the stuff carried to her room by the bellhop.

Like life itself, Youth follows its own circuitous routes. When Fred's not fending off admirers and Mick's not fenced in by circular conversations with his writing corps, the two spend long sequences sitting side by side, staring ahead, contemplating life, love and that day's bodily functions. These scenes, written and directed by Italian Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), are Youth's most engaging passages — moments when we feel as if we are rather rudely eavesdropping on the two fellows' private moments.

More painful are Fred's encounters with Lena, whose husband recently left her for a music-video star (played with amusing gusto by singer Paloma Faith, appearing as herself). Her current heartbreak has also pulled at the scabs of Lena's troubled relationship with Dad, who always seemed more interested in making music with orchestras than reaching harmony with his family.

Paul Dano, so brilliant as Beach Boy Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, pops up as Johnny Tree, a young actor who, despite his tender years, is something of a has-been. Classically trained and deadly serious about his craft, he seems doomed forever to be remembered for a kids' film in which he appeared as a robot. Dano plays the part with a sad smile of resignation, which has the strange effect of making the viewer believe he may yet find a way to put his life in perspective.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in 'Youth'

I feel a tad guilty mentioning Jane Fonda's appearance in Youth, so sudden you get the sense Sorrentino planned it as a surprise — or a shock. Playing aging diva Brenda Morel in the bravest and most searing performance of her career, our Ms. Fonda strides onto the scene to deliver some bad news to Mick. Brutally spitting out her verbal bullets — her pale, creviced face bearing a slash of red lipstick, like makeup on Mount Rushmore — Fonda provides the film's one unambiguous character. All fake eyelashes and garish hairdo, Brenda at first seems tragically obsessed with clinging to her younger self. Behind that flaking façade, however, Fonda makes it clear that Brenda knows the battle is lost: Her bitterness springs from the fact that she must still keep up the pretense of a fight. For Mick, the encounter is more than he can bear.

It's nearly as shattering for us -— though not quite so heartbreaking as the full revelation, near the film's end, of why Fred has sworn never to conduct his most famous piece again. For anyone tempted to dismiss Caine as that lightweight who played cavalier Alfie or Batman's butler Alfred, Youth is a compelling reminder of how deep he can dive into a character. We sense Fred's sadness from the beginning; by the end we share his grief.

The dramatic episodes of Youth are linked with surreal scenes in and around the spa: quirky nightly entertainment that seems lifted from a Cirque du Soleil farm team; meditative moments in the lush Swiss countryside; and frequent processions of spa patrons young and old, mostly naked, offering a startling visual context for the film's themes of age and fading memories of youth.

As Fred and Mick soak in a hot spring, a buxom young woman slips nude into the water nearby.

"Who is she?" gasps Fred.

"God," Mick answers.

Not even close, of course. If the film, and life, have taught us anything, it's that there's no point in worshipping youth; too soon, it betrays us all.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.