I sit here writing this at the still relatively young age of 31. 32 is fast approaching. I don’t consider myself old, yet still I’m starting to begrudge the fact that ‘youth culture’ doesn’t really include me nowadays, and more and more I’m the one actively withdrawing my participation. Be it my own culpability or not, I feel less included.
Watching Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young, which centres on a 40-something couple growing enamoured with a pair in their mid-20s, I already find myself identifying with the older generation, acknowledging – as they do – that this attraction is bittersweet. Part jealously, part regret. What the hell is happening to me?
Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentary filmmaker who has failed to live up to his early promise, sidelining his career in a film nearly ten years in the making; an obsession which has become something of an unsolvable riddle. He and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) feel squeezed out of their present social circle simply because they’ve opted not to have children. A chance encounter brings them into the lives of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Sayfried). Their youthful exuberance and can-do spirit serves as a tonic for Josh and Cornelia, who find themselves excited about crafting new experiences. Soon this couple who ‘never go out’ are engaged in more than one social event per day.
Along the way Baumbach mines the conceit for its prime comedic potential, playing both Josh and Cornelia as fish out of water in various situations (Josh taking up cycling; Cornelia joining in a hip-hop dance class). The mockery goes both ways though; as much as Josh and Cornelia occasionally look outlandish, Jamie and Darby are your typical New York hipsters; making their own ice cream, somehow affording gargantuan record collections, never picking up the bill, keeping impractical pets in their studio apartment. And, in what seems Baumbach’s prime bugbear, codifying the past and reclaiming it as their own. Playing both couples as a little moronic helps While We’re Young to balance for around two-thirds of its run time. In the main it’s a spry, buoyant, fun film to watch. One that’s frequently far more savvy than its coffee-table-lite trailer makes out.
Baumbach has proven himself superb at the little details previously, and so it goes again. Little touches here and there that elevate things (the collector’s petty frustration at losing the cardboard slip for a CD, making it somehow less ‘special’), not to mention his uncanny knack at turning caricatures into multi-dimensional beings. Live with While We’re Young a short while and it’s characters start to flesh out as believable individuals remarkably quickly. Cornelia isn’t just the wife behind Stiller’s lead, rather a complex creation in her own right, still reconciling her choices about forgoing motherhood. Darby’s optimistic smile betrays a hint of hesitation; has all this rushing led her down the wrong path? Similarly we can understand Josh’s frustration as much as Jamie’s shameless opportunism. And ultimately it is the conflict between these two that tips While We’re Young slightly off-kilter in its closing stretch.
After a fruitful bromance, Josh starts growing suspicious of Jamie’s motives. The explanation of this is surprisingly involved, as Jamie’s own documentary (in which Josh has an increasing hand) becomes clouded by the fragrance of fraud. It is further complicated by the involvement of Cornelia’s father Leslie (Charles Grodin), another filmmaker and luminary, with whom Josh has a rocky relationship and Jamie a connivingly ambitious one. Out of nowhere this ambling, amiable film finds itself a plot, one that whiffs of the compromised truths that surrounded the 2010 documentary Catfish. Having straddled both sides, Baumbach suddenly, noticeably picks one, sending Josh off on an odyssey of righteousness, bristling with barely concealed anger. I side with Baumbach (and Josh) on this, reproaching the shifting values of a younger generation that assumes everything, even the truth, is theirs to redefine in their own narcissistic image. But that doesn’t stop While We’re Young slipping every so slightly toward Birdman–esque bitterness.
But thankfully not too far. As tarnished as our view of Jamie becomes, there are a whole host of fine memories stacked up early on in While We’re Young. Driver is afforded his most prominent role yet here, and he fits it like a glove. And if he’s seemed a little typecast so far then his addition to the Star Wars cast should change that (are there hipsters in a galaxy far, far away?) Elsewhere, props should go especially to Naomi Watts, who frequently allows her comic side to flourish, more than holding her own opposite Stiller, an actor more readily associated with pratfalls and foolishness. Stiller is, by the way, as good as he’s ever been.
I have a bumpy history with Baumbach. I loathed The Squid And The Whale and hold it at least partially responsible for the surge of too-cute NY indie movies that detail unsympathetic first-world-problems, movies that scatter themselves regularly throughout the cinematic calendar like dog turds; their owners too arrogant to clean up the mess. On the other hand he whole-heartedly won me back with his last, Frances Ha. Genuinely one of the best films of the decade thus far. While We’re Young is not another Frances Ha. Not even close. But it is good for a laugh, and it has got some sense behind it. This is a wise little movie, one well worth 90 minutes of your time.
I sit here in between Josh and Jamie, writing my review, listening to the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album (hip? not hip? who cares?) but doing so on vinyl. Of course on vinyl. I don’t own any tweed yet though, so there’s that. And I definitely don’t think I could build myself a desk. Maybe someone ought to make a movie about the people in between these two stereotypes, who don’t know where the fuck to turn?
Oh, a word of warning; one of the film’s most memorable sequences (for laughs and otherwise) takes place at a ritual cleansing ceremony. It’s all fine… but if you’re nauseated by the sound of other people vomiting, this might be a minor ordeal for you.