Film of the Week: While We're Young
There’s a moment in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young that makes you do a double take. First you think, “Neat cultural apercu,” then you worry that perhaps Baumbach hit the Zeitgeist Analysis button a little too neatly on cue. It’s one of the film’s many juxtapositions of the lifestyle of Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who are in their mid-to-late forties, settled and somewhat jaded, and that of indefatigably enthusiastic, creative young hipsters Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). The latter cultivate—or seem just organically, with innate coolness, to have—a connection with the past and with archaic forms like VHS tapes, board games, vinyl LPs. Whereas it’s the older, hidebound couple who live in the world of present-day connectivity: we see them at home checking their mobiles, watching TV online, reading Kindles.
It’s a nice point, concisely made, but it worried me that Baumbach was overplaying his “How We Live Today” card—possibly because I’m still getting over the overzealous “alarm call” literalness of Jason Reitman’s indigestible Men, Women, & Children. But this is probably unfair to Baumbach, a much wittier, more graceful filmmaker than Reitman. While We’re Young offers plenty of caustic insights into contemporary bourgeois-bohemian lifestyle, plus a great deal of more ambitious philosophical inquiry, and for the most part—for the most part—Baumbach pulls it all off with lightness, delicacy, and that rare quality, joy. This may not be the most original of social comedies, but it has a distinctive and enjoyable tang—I’m in no way belittling it if I call it a tart sorbet of a movie.
Stiller’s Josh is a filmmaker teaching documentary while struggling to complete his own long-gestating project, an all-encompassing study of who knows what, exactly—no less than the entire contemporary global malaise, it appears—and in particular recording at length the cogitations of a guru-like penseur, one Ira Mandelshtam (echoes here of Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Woody Allen’s character is similarly filming another venerable repository of ethical wisdom). Then Josh meets Jamie and Darby, who are attending one of his lectures; Jamie tickles Josh’s vanity by complimenting one of his early films. The two couples start hanging out, and Josh and Cornelia find themselves gawping in astonished delight at the younger duo’s vivacity, creativity, their unceasing inexhaustible on-ness. Josh is so impressed, and rejuvenated, that he fails to notice that he always picks up the bill at his coffee sessions with Jamie—an enthuser but also possibly a user.
The film’s prime joke is that what can make the young so appealing and inspiring to be around tends to look charmless and awkward in older people: when Josh and Cornelia start doing, you know, young stuff, they inevitably look absurd. Josh buys his instant ticket to rejuvenation—a hat. He also starts riding a bike, only to be told by his doctor that he has arthritis (“Arthritis arthritis?” he gapes in disbelief). Cornelia joins Darby at one of her hip-hop dance sessions, and is angular, clumsy, and out-of-step. But then she’s giving it a go and moving those creaky joints—which is better than staying glued to her iPad, right?
Baumbach works some of the ironies more elegantly than others. Josh and Cornelia accompany their new friends to an ayahuasca retreat, gagging on the mystic decoction to the sounds of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score. Some participants, but not all, get mystical insights (Josh: “It’s true, you see Egyptian shit. What are you seeing?”; Cornelia: “I’m in a deli in Bensonhurst”), and guess what, someone kisses the wrong person. Meanwhile, the couple have been neglecting their old friends, recent parents (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz)—then go to their apartment to find them throwing a party, to which Josh and Cornelia aren’t invited. Their old friends aren’t impressed by their skin-deep attempts to be young, not even by the hat: “You’re an old man with a hat,” the Horovitz character tells Josh.
There’s a certain breezy obviousness to much of the humor: it’s like a broad, sitcom expansion of a Moral Tale or a Comedies and Proverbs episode that Baumbach’s beloved Eric Rohmer might have made on a sortie to Williamsburg. And the film is intensely enjoyable on that level. But Baumbach attempts to go a little deeper, to delve also into matters of truth, identity, and the problem of the Real Thing. Everything about Jamie and Darby is painfully authentic, so grittily organic that it can’t help looking like fakery, like a dazzling borrowed set of vintage clothes; it’s their ostentatious authenticity that makes them seem so phony. Conversely, the older pair unthinkingly live every day in the midst of a modern culture of phoniness, or iPhoniness, yet that’s what makes them authentic, in their way: they’re prisoners of their society and of their aging bodies, but they’re aware of it and doing their best to deal with it. They’re like most of us.
Less convincing is the film’s take on the problem of truth. Josh helps Jamie on his new doc project, which seems to spring breezily from the top of the young whiz’s head, triggered by an extraordinary serendipitous discovery. Except that all is not what it seems, and Jamie’s amazing find turns out to have been reverse-engineered; I imagine that Baumbach is thinking here of the controversy around the suspiciously convenient Catfish, a tall tale about tall tales. Things come to a head when a near-crazed Josh crashes an evening at Lincoln Center (where else), in honor of his father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (played with impeccable dry relaxation by Charles Grodin), a revered documentarist in the Wiseman/Maysles vein, who gives a speech on filmmakers allowing the world to offer its truths to them. But even this senior statesman of filmic truth—whose high principles allow for the grace of flexibility—doesn’t seem to think that Jamie’s crime of fiddling the facts is so heinous. At least his film works, whereas Leslie, after watching the latest cut of Josh’s work-in-eternal-progress, can only comment: “You just showed me a six-and-a-half-hour film that feels like it’s seven hours too long.”
At one point, Josh sneers about Jamie: “It’s all a pose. He once saw a sincere person and he’s been imitating him ever since.” Well, sincerity is a wonderful thing—but what if expressing your true self means that you only kvetch all the time? It’s a problem that once fueled a large part of Woody Allen’s career, and a problem that Larry David has solved quite satisfactorily—kvetching is funnier and a noble calling, so nu, live with it. As for the theme of ageing, Baumbach has addressed it before, together with Stiller; the film recalls the mind-boggling scene in which Stiller, as the protagonist of Greenberg (10), loses his composure at a students’ party; While We’re Young is a lighter take on similar themes, but with the comic grace that comes from resignation and reconciliation.
But While We’re Young suffers from a certain male skew. That’s partly because Stiller and Driver are such magnetic comedy players that they inevitably hog the limelight. Stiller has become his generation’s quintessential frustrated man, an actor whose very being seems increasingly concentrated in his ever-tenser shoulders. That makes him a mesmerizing yin-yang pairing with the gangling, floppy Driver, who’s so loose it appears as if his limbs could float free at any point and then recompose themselves into position at will (who knows, maybe he’ll get to demonstrate this power in the forthcoming Star Wars). As for Watts, while she’s also good at exuding crackly self-unease, she’s never 100-percent convincing at maximizing the humor, which was partly the problem with her Birdman performance (plus, it was a very underwritten role). As for Seyfried’s Darby, she’s a little lacking in color, and in any case underused. Darby complains at one point that she has the back seat role in her relationship with Jamie: “I’m the girl to his hitchhiker.” But the film rather places her in that role as well, and Seyfried doesn’t have the comic chops to make more of the part. I wish that Baumbach had cast more of a natural comedian—someone like Aubrey Plaza perhaps too obviously comes to mind, but imagine what she could have done with Darby.
This is also, I have to say, a film replete with zingers—and while Baumbach does zingers with a rare snap and eloquence, you might find myself suffering a certain degree of wit fatigue. Josh’s embattled buoyancy finally caves in when, after countless indignities, he finds his bike still chained to a lamppost, but with its wheel stolen. At last, I thought—a visual image that brings it all home. A visual image other than a hat, that is.