Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a world famous composer and conductor, but now he has reached his eighties he is finding those precious memories of a life well-lived are beginning to fade as his mind ebbs away with age. Nevertheless, he is still in as much demand as he ever was, maybe more thanks to his international stature, which is why he is approached while staying at a favourite hotel in the Swiss Alps. Basically, the British Queen herself has requested that Ballinger conduct a performance of his most famous works, early songs that he wrote for his wife to sing, and the emissary (Alex Macqueen) is very keen to secure a confirmation that he will be there so he may also collect his knighthood in the process...
You could tell this was a film made by a non-British writer and director, Paolo Sorrentino in this case, because Queen Elizabeth would be highly unlikely to have made that request personally, it’s not the done thing for a monarch to be ordering people about for her own amusement (that we know of), but it was merely a device to set off the plot which took in the musings over ageing that Michael Caine was a very apt choice for. Though he wasn't known for his musical talents, simply cross out all the times his character's tunes were mentioned and replace them with films, and you had an idea of the baggage he was carrying for this role, which appeared to have been intended as an end of career tribute.
If anyone deserved that, as much for longevity and sheer tenacity as a major movie star for so long, no matter the quality of some of his choices, then Caine was the right man, and though he performed here with a certain reticence, that fed into the persona of a man who has accomplished much but now, near the end of his life, is wondering what he should do now? Should he simply rest on his laurels, or alternatively make the most of every day he has left while he still can and continue to work because he has fans who are always pleased to see him? Who is Ballinger/Caine doing this for, is he being selfish in performing to keep his name out there, or is being magnanimous for extending his career knowing it will be so appreciated?
After all, there is something reassuring about seeing an ageing star, no matter the medium, who can still walk the walk and talk the talk, less "Good grief, are they still alive?!" and more a sense of good cheer and encouragement that it remains possible at their age, whatever it is they're doing. That's assuming what that is still any good, but Caine did not embarrass himself here by any means, indeed his presence enhanced a cast that suffered a little from stunt casting, as while you had him exchanging dialogue with Harvey Keitel as a film director trying to get his latest and possibly last project off the ground which was fair enough and very pleasurable to see two old pros sharing so many scenes, you also had a fat Maradona lookalike pretending to be the footballer, Paloma Faith as herself (and appearing in a pop video/nightmare sequence), famed model Madalina Diana Ghenea taking all her clothes off, and Jane Fonda as an ageing movie star.
So you could see there was a blurring of the lines between reality and fiction, absolutely on purpose from Sorrentino who was keen to show off his visual sense with much artfully arranged imagery within his frame, a technique that looked rather smug at times, while at others managed to succeed in delineating something as profound as he could muster about the point of making your mark in the world when by and by even the most celebrated person would be forgotten in the mists of time. You could counter that by offering there were still famed people from ancient periods who are well known this far into their futures, but then concede that eventually all things must pass, and that nature of ephemera, argued here as the nature of everything from movies to music to physical beauty, was what made it so precious. Which was all fair enough, but there were points here where you would think, is Sorrentino trying to make us wryly laugh, and if so why does Rachel Weisz as Ballinger's daughter suffer so and why is Paul Dano's famous for one role film star put through the wringer also, and handles it pretty badly? There was a lot to unpick here, not all of it rewarding... but enough of it was. Music by David Lang.