Sunday, March 29, 2015

While We're Young (***)

Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach


Noah Baumbach made his career on a certain kind of crankiness - a crankiness no doubt born from his troublesome childhood which was well documented in his not-so-fictional film memoir The Squid and The Whale. That movie helped Baumbach crossover from the young buck filmmaker of Kicking and Screaming (and occasional writing partner of Wes Anderson) into a unique, individual filmmaking voice. But his cynical sarcasm quickly turned to nasty bitterness, and the double-fisted punchout of his next two films, Margot at the Wedding (which is truly unpleasant and unentertaining) and Greenberg (which was saved only by an inspired lead performance from its star, Ben Stiller), left audiences feeling like he was lashing out at an invisible enemy - like life itself was a giant crusade. Anger seemed to be his permanent state. His 2012 film Frances Ha introduced us to a new Baumbach, one who may actually see a sunny side to life, even if he still believes that it's a shit parade. His latest film, While We're Young, re-connects him with Stiller but the result is much more tame, less relentless in its pursuit of winning a nameless argument. Baumbach seems to be finally accepting his adulthood (the formerly "hip" director is now in his mid-forties) and partaking in the mellowness that comes along with it. Despite it all, he still has his punch. He can still write hurtful monologues and take out entire subcultures of people with a single line, but While We're Young is about the acquiescence that the angry young man partakes in to avoid becoming a cranky old man.

Stiller plays Josh, a documentary filmmaker who's been working on the same film for ten years. His wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), is the daughter of the legendary documentarian Leslie Breitbart (played by the shockingly white-haired Charles Grodin), and she works as a producer for her father's later work. Their best friends (played by Orange is the New Black's Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, also known as Ad-Rock from The Beastie Boys) just had a baby, and are in the process of letting it take over their lives. In her forties, Cornelia has all but given up on having children, her stance aided by two miscarriages in her thirties. Josh and Cornelia openly talk about the liberation within their child-less existence, but the claim feels hollow. There's something that they want, but they don't know what it is - they just know they want it. Josh lives for his work, but his film is obviously stunted, rutted by overthinking and too much footage. It's over a hundred hours of film without a point. A former protégé of Leslie, he now rejects any help from his father-in-law, not wanting to seem to be mooching off his predecessor's success. This feeling is made more difficult since he's married to Leslie's daughter. While teaching a documentary course at the New School in Manhattan, Josh is approached by Jamie (Adam Driver), an aspiring documentarian, and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and when Jamie professes his love for Josh's work, they all decide to have dinner together.

Cornelia joins them to make it an official double date, and Josh is able to sit back and soak praise from his young admirer. Not possessing anything one would call a fanbase, Josh can't help but fall in love with Jamie's enthusiasm for his films. That said, Jamie doesn't seem to have many borders. He steamrolls his way into Josh and Cornelia's life, bringing his amiable Darby along for the ride. He invites them to hang out at their bohemian home in Bushwick, to a street beach party, and even to a holistic healing ceremony which includes a sketchy shaman, hallucinogenic drugs and lots of vomiting. Josh and Cornelia accept the young couple as new friends, even as it begins alienating their old friends. Jamie and Darby seem to live the kind of freewheeling, uninhibited life that many films and television shows fetishize. They live in an expansive loft, watch films on outdated VHS, and keep farm animals for pets. (How they can afford their home is never really explained. Jamie seems to be unemployed and Darby sells her own ice cream.) While We're Young stays away from the H-word, but if Jamie and Darby aren't meant to represent the Brooklyn white hipster scene, it's only because they're too kitsch-y in their tastes. To pump Josh up for a pitch meeting, Jamie plays the song 'Eye of the Tiger' for him and Josh responds by saying, "I remember when this song just used to be bad".

Their friendship isn't all sunshine and roses. As Jamie's more ambitious side arises, it becomes obvious that his relationship isn't solely based on good vibes and tender feelings. Hoping to fight a reputation that he doesn't collaborate well, Josh decides to help Jamie with his infantile documentary idea - but when that idea happens to spin into something more interesting, Josh suddenly becomes envious of Jamie's luck. The unsentimental way with which Jamie and Darby go about their decisions begins to rear its head. Josh and Cornelia are forced to come face-to-face with their own struggle with adulthood and the specter of middle age. When a doctor diagnoses Josh with Arthritis in his knee, Josh feels like he isn't old enough until he thinks about it for a second and realizes that he is exactly old enough for it. While We're Young isn't specifically a movie about a mid-life crisis, it's too kind to its characters to dismiss them with a fear of mortality. Its focus is instead about the gaps between generations and how swaths of the population can come to be defined by the work of their peers in their age group. Having no kids is cool when you're twenty-five, but harder to explain when you're forty-three. Baumbach isn't lashing out at the kids on his lawn. He's coming to grips with the fact that he isn't one of those lawn-stomping kids himself.

While We're Young does have it's work cut out for itself. It's got the tossed-off feeling of Woody Allen's lighter fare (Think, for instance, of Hollywood Ending). As with some of Woody's more troublesome films, race will always be a sticking point for Baumbach. This is his second film that attempts put across a certain millennial New York-ishness that is at the heart of most generational conflict in America. Frances Ha was from the perspective of a twenty-something woman trying to get by in the fabled city without any specific skills, and that was one of the few films that properly displayed the anxiousness of being young and living in NYC. While We're Young takes this similar concept and funnels it through the Me Generation - Baumbach's generation. Baumbach grew up in the Brooklyn of the 80's, the pre-gentrification era where the city was still broken up into invisible but very pertinent racial lines. A lot millennials move to New York City expecting to find the Greenwich Village of Friends and Seinfeld; ie, a shocking whites-only club where people of color sit on the fringes, and only exist in a stereotypical, unseen, unexplored universe. Baumbach seems to still hit his head against this. Her purview is entirely white, and While We're Young is a continuation of that. His attempts at making films about millennials feels hollow because of it. Frances Ha works because it's edited with such an enthusiastic flair, borrowing from Truffaut and Godard, and because it's star, Greta Gerwig, has made a career off of being the only actress who can perceive millennial conflict without making viewers squeamish. She's to millennials what Madonna is to the gays.

But Baumbach's script is still filled with hilarious witticisms. Coming from Stiller, we get a voice that's able to humanize the occasional grating quality of the writer/director's more bullish soliloquies. Stiller and Watts play their characters with a splendid mix of intrigue and cynicism. They want to believe that Jamie and Darby can change their lives, but they feel almost vindicated when that proves not to be the case. As for Adam Driver, I still find myself unswayed by the actor's popularity, though Baumbach interestingly enough allows Driver's inherent aloofness and deceitfulness to bloom into the character of Jamie. It feels like Driver, himself, admitting that his fame is a sham. As Darby, Seyfried is smart and funny, and offers another reminder that she's a talented actress who should be getting better parts. Grodin, as the fragile but mighty filmmaking figure, has a rusty charm. Like he did in his multiple cameos on the show Louie last year, Grodin is showing that he still has some gas in his advanced age, and we'll see if anyone else notices. While We're Young is a sweet film, which you usually can't say about Baumbach. His affection for his characters here cannot be questioned. He's neither critical of the old guard or hoping to stomp out the young rapscallions of the next generation, but instead making an attempt to show a funny, honest representation of twenty-first century middle age. His result is one of the more delightful films he's ever made.

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