Life is hard for the extravagantly wealthy lounging about in one of the world's most beautiful hotels. Paolo Sorrentino's latest might seem easy to mock — here, after all, are Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, playing a composer and a film director, moping in a Swiss spa about old age and memory loss while often surrounded by the flesh the title promises. ("Miss Universe" parades nude before them in a heated pool, which Sorrentino makes seem thematically rewarding — probably helped secure financing.)
But Sorrentino, as always, invests his scenarios with a feeling and beauty that transcends the dreary specifics: The spa, populated not just by decaying gods but by troubled younger folks played by Paul Dano (as an actor crushed that people only recognize him from his robot film) and a magnificent Rachel Weisz (as the just-jilted daughter of Caine's composer), comes to feel like some louche purgatory, but one alive to the possibilities shaking loose in its inhabitants. Caine conducts a field of cows into something like a clanging-bell overture; a tank-topped prostitute loses herself in dancing along to a video game; a gaggle of screenwriters lie in bed, pitching a character's final words, the camera surveying their faces from above; a monk on the lush lawn sits in silent contemplation, willing himself to levitate. Plus, Hitler shows up, and the great director played by Keitel beholds a meadow filled with every actress he ever directed, each costumed for her key role. The sequence is wistful, fierce, hilarious.
A devotee of Fellini, Sorrentino unleashes a surfeit of visions, but here the imaginative surplus is warm and restful, despite a couple of moments of fury. The best of those belong to Weisz, the daughter dressing down her father with the full spleen of a Dylan song, and Jane Fonda, as a Hollywood great, who turns up toward the end and takes over the joint with the frankest of frank talk. Still, the film mostly plays like an extended spa stay, and, like with any superior vacation, what you find in it, and what you take away from it, is probably your own. Here's the rare film that refreshes.