Spotlight on a midlife search for truthMovie Review Thursday, April 2nd, 2015
Maybe it’s because I’m about the same age at the characters Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play in While We’re Young that I so identified with them, their ennui about aging and their adulation of a much younger, fresh and earnest couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) have reached their early middle age and discovered that they have not become the people they’d planned to become. They seem comfortable – he teaches documentary filmmaking and she produces the movies of her famous father and they have a nice apartment somewhere in New York City – but Josh, especially, is not the successful, lauded documentarian he wanted to be, and they do not have children. At the beginning of the film, they talk about how great it is that they’re free to do whatever they want because they’re not tied down, that they don’t need kids to be fulfilled. But when they meet Jamie (Driver, playing a version of Adam from Girls) and Darby (Seyfried, adorable but underused), Josh suddenly, Cornelia more slowly, realizes that they are somewhat unfulfilled.
Jamie and Darby are quintessential New York hipsters. They live in a loft in Bushwick, Brooklyn, decorated with, as Cornelia notes, stuff she and Josh would have thrown out. But Jamie and Darby make it look great! They listen to vinyl, write on typewriters, wear ironic clothing but do it sincerely. Jamie wants to be a documentary filmmaker and is solicitous of especially Josh’s advice; Darby takes a very awkward Cornelia to a hip-hop dance class, and the four of them start spending a lot of time together, including going on a ritualized hallucinogenic trip. But when Josh starts to help Jamie on his movie, Josh gets jealous as Jamie turns out to be more than just a dabbler in film. Then Josh gets suspicious. Just how authentic is Jamie?
The movie works on two levels. It is a brilliantly funny satire of artistic pretensions, middle class dissatisfaction and the so-called search for truth. The film Josh has been making for a decade is a hilariously turgid, over-intellectualized mess, and his description of it while pitching to a drunk hedge fund manager is one of Stiller’s better filmed monologues (though he’s still doing Ben Stiller, which never changes). Cornelia is horrified by a mommy-and-baby music class, and hilariously so; Watts gets more comedy from silent facial expressions than the other actors in the film do with hundreds of words.
It is also a more serious movie about aging, recognizing limitations and forgiving yourself for failing. Jamie and Darby are their own characters, but they serve mostly as catalysts for Josh’s early-mid-life crisis which Cornelia is forced to share. He’s disappointed that he didn’t become the success that Cornelia’s father is and disappointed they didn’t have children. Cornelia, who is less internally conflicted and maybe a bit underwritten, loves her husband but not his self-doubt and self-delusions.
Baumbach writes subtle comedy, influenced greatly by Woody Allen, and While We’re Young is my favorite of his films. His most famous, The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha, are incredibly smart commentaries on family and youth, respectively, but also are so arch as to seem artificial, almost unbelievable. I recognized the people in While We’re Young and I sympathized with them, even when they made terrible choices or said the worst possible thing at the worst possible time. It’s hard getting older and recognizing your mistakes. Baumbach helps us to recognize this and laugh about it.
While We’re Young
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