Greetings again from the darkness. With a Best Foreign Language Oscar for his previous film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), expectations were sky high for this one from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is also back and the two create yet another artistic entrée that is a visual extravaganza, worthy of the admission price even if no dialogue existed. Combine the visual artistry with a commentary on age and emotions, and the result is a film that will either enchant or stultify … with probably no middle ground.
Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a renowned Orchestra conductor, who is vacationing at a stunning Swiss Alps spa with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his long-time best friend, screenwriter Mick Boyd (Harvey Keitel). Fred, a self-professed retiree, is being pursued by Queen Elizabeth’s representative to perform one last concert. Fred is adamant in his refusal … for personal reasons we later learn are due to his nostalgic belief that his wife (no longer able to sing) is the only one who will sing his “simple” songs as long as he is alive. In the meantime, Mick is working with a group of ambitious young writers in an attempt to leave a legacy with his most important film ever. So you can already see that both men are working through their golden years in different ways.
Lena is devastated when her husband dumps her for a young pop singer (played by the real pop singer, Paloma Faith). Oh, one other detail … Lena’s husband is also Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard). This makes for some awkward (but entertaining) moments, and also leads to one of the film’s best scenes – Lena spilling her emotional guts to Fred while they are both covered in a mud bath. Director Sorrentino is a master at twisting these poignant moments with dashes of levity or irony. Another example is when Miss Universe (Romanian model Madalina Diana Ghenea) puts a condescending movie actor (Paul Dano) in his place with a devastating shift in tone and a comeback for the ages.
Sorrentino executes a couple of bizarre dream or fantasy sequences – one with Fred conducting a cow pasture (replete with cows and other bits of nature), and another with Mick being haunted in a meadow by all the female stars from his films (each in costume of their character). Suffice to say, this is not a conventional look at aging. What’s also clear is that Sorrentino believes our emotions drive our actions. The most jarring example is the aftermath when Mick’s long-time leading lady Brenda Morel (played by Jane Fonda) declines to appear in his latest film.
Even the most bizarre segments are presented with a visual artistry that forces our brains to process overtime. How about an obese Diego Maradona (played by Roly Serrano) repeatedly kicking tennis balls into the air? Or big time actor Jimmy Tree (Dano) struggling with his decision to sellout by appearing in a popular robot movie instead of pursuing his desire to be taken seriously as an actor? Or Lena bouncing back with a socially awkward mountain man? Or the seemingly minor role of a young masseuse (played by Luna Zimic Mijovic) who has us yearning for more? In addition to how each of these segments is startling to look at, Jane Fonda’s role has so many nuances that an entire movie could be made about her.
As with The Great Beauty, the film will have the most profound impact on those of us old enough to be looking through the binoculars and noticing how far away the past looks … and wondering just how long until “Life’s Last Day”.