by Lee Purvey
A very typical way to begin a film review is with what you might call the “telling moment”--a specific scene, symbol, snippet of dialogue, etc. that cleanly and efficiently articulates what the film is trying to get across (or, even more effectively, what you’re trying to get across about the film in your review). This anchors the reader in a specific, descriptive moment, while at the same time advancing the germ of a thesis.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Producers: Noah Baumach, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Lila Yacoub
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Cinematographer: Sam Levy
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Music: James Murphy
Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Maria Dizzia, Adam Horovitz, Amanda Seyfried, Dree Hemingway, Charles Grodin, Brady Corbet
Premiere: September 6, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 27, 2015
US Distributor: A24
I chose not to begin this review with a “telling moment” because such an introduction would, by its very selectivity, suggest that this one moment was dropped in as a sort of sexy little clue as to the film’s thematic M.O. (or my possible interpretation). The problem is they’re all telling moments in Noah Baumbach’s latest, While We’re Young, a dramedy that begins its thematic assault in its opening frames, bludgeoning you into total spectatorial submission with an avalanche of the tiredest “millennial” buzz-topic shtick and keeps beating long after you’ve quit crying uncle and simply lie there, prone and defenseless, until the last of the middle-aged art house audience has heaved up from their plush, recently-renovated Uptown Theatre seating and headed home, satisfyingly vindicated in their longtime uneasiness surrounding 20-somethings; until finally, darkness seeping in from your peripherals and the taste of blood in your mouth, the last thing you register in any sort of real sensorial way before completely passing into full-blown art-induced comatose is that little music box “Golden Years” cover James Murphy did for the score--which, come to think of it, would have been one of the better options for an introductory “telling moment,” what with its myriad temporal-cultural referents (music boxes are toys for children; “Golden Years” is an anthem of youthful ebullience, only also one that was released 40 years ago; it’s being covered here by a cultural hero of more or less the same youngish generation Baumbach treats in the film--music that makes you nostalgic for the moment you’re living right now, basically).
The point being, While We’re Young is a slave to the sort of pathetic, desperately self-indulgent, sure-is-wacky-getting-old empathy-baiting you might find on Garrison Keillor.
I was too busy scribbling “On the Nose” over and over in my notes during the first quarter of the film to get more than a general sense of what it was about, but as far as I can tell there was a highly-educated, affluent, liberal, white, urban New York middle-aged couple who strike up a friendship with another highly-educated, affluent, liberal, and white couple, but who (here’s the catch) are in their late 20s (!). The former are Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), an independent filmmaker and producer who find themselves occupying an uncomfortable social islet of their own design as they watch the last of their friends drifting off into parenthood. Unable and/or unwilling to conceive, the pair find a long-faded verve in Darby and Jamie (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver), two charismatic young Brooklynites who--though Jamie is nominally interested in film--don’t seem to do much other than hang out, but manage to make the activity look extremely sophisticated and alluring.
Many who came to Baumbach by way of the slit-your-wrists one-two punch of The Squid and the Whale (2005) and his 2007 follow-up Margot at the Wedding might consider While We’re Young and its predecessor Frances Ha as something of a sea change for the filmmaker thematically--penduluming from the nihilistic grit of upper-class New York ennui to, well, basically a more saccharine and sympathetic portrait of said ennui. While all of Baumbach’s film’s are in some ways comedic, Frances and Squid are not the only instances of more genuinely lighthearted humor in his oeuvre. Both as a writer-director in his debut Kicking & Screaming--not to be confused with the Will Ferrell vehicle of the same name (“I’m like a tornado of anger, swirling about!”)--and as a co-writer of the The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (both by his longtime friend and affiliate Wes Anderson), Baumbach has demonstrated an established ability to tell stories with a humorous humanism.
This being said, While We’re Young represents the first time in Baumbach's career that his work feels truly predictable. Whereas films from Kicking and Screaming to 2010’s Greenberg relied on a quieter comedy, digging out the absurdity and humor in narrative realism, While We’re Young lacks those films’ confidence, following a formula of montage and obvious juxtaposition run through in far too many blockbuster comedies already. Thus, in the first half of the film, we’re subjected to painfully conspicuous intergenerational gags: Cornelia attending an esoteric hip-hop dance class with Darby, parroting her neighbors with the unmistakable awkwardness of the accidentally-onstage; Josh trying to ride his single-speed no-hands, then clutching his back in pain; cuts between the elder couple scrolling through their iPhones and the younger listening to cassettes and watching VHS tapes. This achingly inauthentic rendition of Darby and Jamie’s generation (and, disclaimer, more or less mine) brings to mind Diablo Cody’s criminally out of touch Juno script in terms of sheer grotesquerie.
Thankfully, Baumbach jumps tracks eventually. As the couples become increasingly intimate--sharing drug trips, film shoots, and conveniently parallel infidelities--the Youths’ alluring veneer (equally the product of their own trendy posturing and their older friends’ insecurity) begins to peel away, revealing all too familiar undercurrents of cynicism and unromantic pragmatism. Beginning as a mentorship, Josh and Jamie’s relationship quickly becomes a rivalry, the latter’s success prompting an exploration of authenticity, ambition, and art. In so doing, While We’re Young becomes a much different movie, and--supported by functional performances across the board (Driver is a particular stand-out; odd but charming, his Jamie is a fascinating thing to watch)--it also gets better. Unfortunately, Baumbach fails to cash in on this promising change of focus, the narrative’s close mired in uncertainty.
Despite its first-act dalliance in conventionality, the real nail-in-the-coffin element of the first bad film of Noah Baumbach’s career is that it simply doesn’t have much to say, other than projecting a sort of queasy insecurity. His creepy obsession with MacBook-toting youngsters running out of steam, the director turns to a half-hearted antagonism as the film comes to a close. Josh’s eleventh-hour bid for intergenerational vindication backfires completely. But somehow Baumbach makes anti-climax feel about as cliche as climax and, while the final scene’s flash-forward finds the arrival of a major life event for Josh and Cornelia, you get the feeling not much has actually changed. The unspoken question is why the pair had to go through all of that to end up back where they started. For a movie branded as something of a hipster-kebab, it's the oldsters here--Baumbach included--that end up looking the fool.