Saturday, April 18, 2015

While We're Young


Noah Baumbach begins While We’re Young with lines from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, with two characters in dialogue about the promises and difficulties of dealing with the “young”. The epigraph signals a portentous film, maybe one about the relationship between age and power or between youth and creativity. In fact While We’re Young is the most light-footed film of Baumbach’s career and maybe his most purely entertaining film since he debuted with Kicking and Screaming in 1995. Josh (Ben Stiller) is a Brooklyn documentary filmmaker whose wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is the daughter of Leslie (Charles Grodin), whose own documentaries have rated a fete at Lincoln Center. Josh and Cornelia are drawn into the social orbit of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a mid-20’s couple whose affectation of pre-digital culture and “making” seems like something entirely new to two busy, post-40 New Yorkers. As Josh and Cornelia begin to embrace the world of their new friends, attending a “street beach” and taking hip-hop dance classes (Naomi Watts’s dancing may ensure she’s never cast in another period role), it emerges that Jamie’s easygoing demeanor masks a keen ambition. What indeed do the young want from their elders?

Ben Stiller was excellent in Baumbach’s Greenberg and he’s almost as good here, though he’s helped by the fact that the role offers chance for some broader comedy than we’re used to in Baumbach’s films. Stiller is particularly funny in a sequence where Josh receives the ministrations of a “shaman” (played by musician Dean Wareham) whose practice involves getting communicants to consume a herb that induces prodigious vomiting. The fact that the humor of the scene masks deeper questions about the marriage of Josh and Cornelia - about the degree to which the couple’s childlessness is a hole in their relationship - is a testament to the thought behind the writing. I don’t know whether sequences like the montage that cuts between Jamie and Darby listening to vinyl and watching VHS movies and Josh and Cornelia using their mobile devices were scripted or emerged in the shooting, but I very much appreciate that fact that Baumbach feels confident enough in what he’s doing to wring some humor out of the material. There’s also a very funny hard cut that puts Josh and Cornelia at a party thrown by their friends (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) which Baumbach uses to show just how uncomfortable the couple are beginning to feel in their 40-year old skin. All of these choices and more bring out the best in Stiller and also in Naomi Watts, who very much enjoys the chance to be funny, sexy, and nakedly emotional all in the same film. We begin to understand Cornelia’s struggle when she accompanies some friends who are parents to a children’s music class. Cornelia’s reassurance that she’s fine with no kids masks a deeper pain, and Watts also adeptly plays the cost of juggling the tension between her husband and her father. (While We’re Young is in one way a movie about a marriage with a third person in it.) Watts gives the kind of performance that deserves more acclaim but that will probably have to settle for being another line on a strong resume.

The most important line in While We’re Young is spoken by Darby late in the film. When musing on the way in which she and Jamie will grow old she says that it will probably be “just like everybody else”. It is allowed for Darby and Jamie (whom Driver plays with an odd, darting quality that speaks to his talents) to have ambitions just as it is for Josh and Cornelia to try new things and to speak honestly about the state of their marriage. That’s why even when the plot involving Jamie’s filmmaking efforts takes over we never view him as a villain. While We’re Young feels like a transitional film for Noah Baumbach, one made with both confidence in his own style and a new sense of contentment in his own life. (Ever since Frances Ha no self-respecting culture website has missed a chance to document Baumbach’s personal life at least once.) Baumbach’s career has something in common with the documentary that Josh labors over in While We’re Young: It could go anywhere from here.

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Thomas Watson said...

It's probably tough being in your 40's when sometimes you still feel so young and your twenties are still easily remembered.

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