By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Sep 25, 2015 at 3:56 PM

"The Great Beauty" is a brazen title to give your movie, but luckily, Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 Oscar-winner was more than worthy of its audacious and ambitious name.

Both grandiose and personal, Sorrentino’s film presented a story of a bored aging Italian writer trying to care again, wrapped in just the most extravagant wrapping paper: luminescent Roman landmarks, surreal Fellini-esque sequences and feverish parties, all aimed at finding the constant contradictions of Rome and life itself. The movie ended up a little drunk on itself – not that it could be blamed. Merely watching the movie felt like mainlining Monfortino.

"Youth," the Milwaukee Film Festival's opening night pick, finds the director playing in a very similar sandbox. Whereas in the past Sorrentino was able to somewhat shape his millions of glimmering grains of ideas and images into a grand sprawl, this time through it doesn’t quite come together. His grand sprawl now just resembles a lofty-minded mess, often impressive – and just as often falling apart into disjointed clumps. If Sorrentino’s last effort was deservedly called "The Great Beauty," his latest effort comes unfortunately close to meriting the name "The Great Letdown." Or maybe just simply "Beauty."

Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, retired composer and essentially an older British cousin to Toni Servillo’s Jep from "The Great Beauty" – same slicked back fading hair, same thick-rimmed glasses and same bored, apathetic creative and emotional funk. He spends most of his days listening to music and lounging around a serene Swiss oasis for the mostly old and famous with his filmmaking best friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), his distant daughter (Rachel Weisz) and a Shia LeBeouf-ian actor (Paul Dano) prepping a new role.

His cozy life of detached bemusement quietly gawping at his fellow guests is interrupted when the Queen of England asks for one last show featuring his most famous works. It would be an honor – albeit one Fred turns down for "personal reasons" unspoken but fairly obvious.  

As Fred continues to swat away the Queen’s request, "Youth" veers off in several different directions. Some time is spent with Keitel’s melancholy quest to find an ending to his latest film (starring a borderline neon-dressed Jane Fonda). Another tangent follows Fred’s daughter, rebounding from being brutally dumped with what an awkward rock-climber seemingly modeled after Will Forte from "The Last Man on Earth." And while Sorrentino’s at it, let’s linger around with Fred’s dancing young masseuse and an obese parody of Argentinean soccer star Diego Maradona.

Focus has never been particularly high on Sorrentino’s to-do list in the past. However, in the case of "The Great Beauty," for all of its deviating storylines and asides, the movie honed its almost vignette-like storytelling mostly on the charismatic and compelling Jep and how its episodes revolved around him – or at least added to the film’s other lead: Rome itself.

Though beautifully photographed, the hotel isn’t quite as strong of a true character as Rome to bind everything together. With all of the extra side personalities and distractions packed into it – and the extended screen time devoted to them – Caine’s Fred, while calmly and wittily performed, can’t quite summon enough gravitational pull to keep them in orbit. What was once a planet with some small moons plays here like a planet holding onto several other planets. The result is clunky, disjointed and distracted, with Sorrentino’s usual splintering story cracking into a bunch of intriguing pieces that don’t quite ever actually fit together.

The attempt at a unifying force is right there in the title: youth and trying to recapture and retain those hopeful, emotional sensations even when they’re far in the past. When Sorrentino tries to hit on those feelings with his screenplay, they ring a little blunt.

There’s a very nice metaphor involving a telescope and a mountain that Keitel’s character proceeds to explain right out loud; the same goes for most of Keitel’s chats with his young writing staff and an early conversation where Caine elaborates on the British monarchy in a way that hints at his broken marriage – and then straight-up states that it’s like a marriage. When it comes to his dialogue, Sorrentino doesn’t lack for emotion or ideas – Inspiration! Love! Art! Today’s cinema! – and they’re all earnestly and wryly performed. He’s just going for some strong feelings without any touch.  

When he sticks with using his keen ear – utilizing everything from opera to bellowing horns to a Florence + the Machine cover – and his ever-so-evocative eye, the film works infinitely better. In fact, the latter makes it almost impossible to completely dismiss "Youth," even with its plentiful issues.

No, there’s nothing on par with the opening dance party sequence or the painting girl from his last effort, but that doesn’t make "Youth" any less sumptuous and intoxicatingly inventive. A climbing wall looks like a monolith in an ancient temple. A performer creates winding, shimmering bubbles on a glowing night stage. A nightmare is staged like an awful pop music video; another floods an incandescent coliseum. A hillside fills with the clamoring ghosts of Mick’s past invented roles. Even the movie’s equivalent to a Walgreen’s looks utterly luxurious.

Sorrentino, like his obvious inspiration Felini or, say, Baz Luhrmann, is a total maximalist; no frame goes to waste, and no visual goes unused. Their films, even when deeply flawed, demand to be seen – preferably on a big screen – just for the sheer bravado and the fact that they're works made for a visual medium cares concerned about making great, captivating visuals (an often forgotten fact).

And "Youth" most certainly does, filling every frame with beauty and a few worthy droll gags. Like its predecessor, it’s easy to get pleasantly buzzed from all of its visual opulence. But this time – whether it’s the scattered story or, say, the condescending, tittering amusement Sorrentino has toward the bodies of women, the elderly and the awkward – the hangover hits hard afterward. And sure, it’s pretty. It’s all dressed up, but at the same time not quite put together. 

"Youth": **1/2

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.