While We’re Young Dir. Noah Baumbach

[A24; 2015]

Styles: screwball comedy
Others: Portlandia, Neil Simon, This Is 40 Two: Brooklyn Boogaloo

There’s really no hiding the inspiration for Noah Baumbach’s latest film, While We’re Young. The 45-year-old director has this time given us a story about… a mid-forties filmmaker. But if that seems like fuel for an insular self-discovery project, Baumbach is sidestepping it, instead opting for a frenetic, joke-dense screwball comedy. The move is brilliant. Exploring the relationships between multiple generations of “hip” arts-scene counterculturists, the movie never breaks momentum to dwell on individual foibles, and is skillfully able to blend broad strokes with character nuance to create a substantive and very funny final product.

In the first act, Josh (Ben Stiller), a documentarian currently languishing over a bloated, pedantic production with a timeline stretching into double-digit years, meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) when they attend his community college course and charm him into all getting dinner along with Josh’s wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts). Though there’s a roughly twenty year age gap between the two couples, they immediately hit it off — Josh and Jamie as loose mentor/mentee and Darby as Cornelia’s escape from the baby-engulfed world of her middle-aged friends. The premise is a well-worn one; the whole “this generation is like this and that generation is like that but really we’re all pretty similar” schtick is older than cinema itself (the movie’s epigraph is an extended exchange from an Ibsen play), which is why Baumbach doesn’t spend much time on the subject, mostly mining it for jabs and clever one-liners (Cornelia re: Jamie and Darby’s apartment “It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it!”). The meatiest theme here is the conversation about authenticity.

Through the latter two thirds of the film, Jamie, an upstart filmmaker himself, gradually absorbs Josh and Cornelia into the crew of his own project, propelling all of them into a mess of probed insecurities and exposed weakness. Without revealing the vaguely Hitchcockian climax, I’ll say that a major rift forms between the male leads, at the center of which is the imperative to be genuine. Many people, I believe, would like to be earnest at all times, and as society requires us to wear many faces, this often proves very difficult. So when confronted with someone, say an upwardly mobile 25-year-old who just sort of shrugs this tenet off, it can be maddening (one of my favorite lines, Josh re: Jamie “It’s like he saw a sincere person once and he’s just been doing an impression of them ever since.”) Throughout the film, characters discuss the merits and pitfalls of inter-generational cultural sharing: It’s great that the pop culture of one’s youth lives on many years later, but wait, do these younger people really “get it” like I did? And if they do, doesn’t that take something from me, if they can reach infinitely backwards and I struggle to keep up with what’s moving forward? Where does that leave me, but with my, ahem, authenticity? This conflict grows especially thorny when it leaps from the relative banality of a Cookie O’Puss commercial to the validity of someone’s self expression. There’s no easy answer or simple stance for the issue, and While We’re Young doesn’t attempt to claim one.

In a Q&A following the screening I attended, an audience member asked Baumbach how she was meant to view Driver’s character, as someone of a similar age and situation. “How did you feel?” the director asked. “I saw a lot of myself in him, which made me feel bad…” was her response. The crowd laughed. It’s true, Jamie and Darby can be viewed as an indictment of a certain hollowness that follows the voracious seek/consume/digest clip of today’s media literates. By that same token though, Stiller’s character embodies the opposite end of the spectrum: a petty, pay-your-dues-because-I-had-to attitude that breeds resentment and false road blocks. When the laughter died down, Baumbach admitted that he too saw a lot of himself in Jamie, and I think that drives a lot of the success and humor of the movie. If there’s a conflict in all of us between youthful ideals and the fatigue of reality, maybe the best solution is just to laugh at everything.

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