WHILE WE'RE YOUNG
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horovitz
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 3/27/15 (limited); 4/3/15 (wider); 4/10/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 10, 2015
One could see While We're Young as a lengthy debate about which of two frauds is the worse: the middle-aged man who wants to emulate a younger one to make himself feel better or the younger man who appears to be a nice guy while actually doing everything for his own benefit. There's no right answer in Noah Baumbach's perceptive comedy. A major reason for that is in the way the writer/director portrays them. Yes, both characters have some major, character-defining flaws, but Baumbach observes the two men with unexpected sympathy.
In other words, there's nothing too pathetic in the way Josh (Ben Stiller) starts wearing wingtip shoes, a trilby, and browline glasses because that's what the kids these days are wearing. In the same way, there's nothing spiteful about the way Jamie (Adam Driver) latches on to and leeches off of Josh on account of the older man's relative success and professional contacts. It's a symbiotic relationship between the two men—one seeking approval, the other seeking opportunity, and both getting what they want.
There are a lot of good things to say about Josh, too—his devoted work ethic, his strong ethical standards, and his capacity to try new things. There's also plenty of positive traits that Jamie possesses—his unflappable coolness, his professional drive, and his apparent straightforwardness.
Every one of those things has a flip side, though. Josh's work ethic may be too reliant in seeking perfection, which might be why his latest documentary has been eight years in the making. His concern over the proper way of doing things means that he's stubborn when confronted with any challenge—no matter how miniscule—to his beliefs. Yes, he'll try something new, but that means he's a 44-year-old man walking around in public while wearing a trilby.
Jamie doesn't let things bother him, but that also means there's a lack of sincerity to him. In his drive to get work complete, he's a fast worker, but maybe some vital corners get cut. He's not afraid to tell people what he thinks, but that comes at the cost of believing that everyone wants to know what he thinks—not to mention that his lack of experience or knowledge doesn't prevent him from chiming in on a subject.
We can see some of ourselves in either of these characters, because we're all a little too ambitious in certain regards, a little too stubborn in our ways, a little too desperate for acceptance, and a little too honest when we have no right to be. The main reason it's so difficult to judge which of these two men is the worse one is because, either way, we would also be condemning some part of who we are, who we were, or who we'll eventually become.
Josh is married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), the daughter of Josh's filmmaking mentor (Charles Grodin). All of their friends are having babies, and the couple is starting to feel pressure: "You two would make great parents." While teaching a continuing education class on documentaries, Josh is approached by Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The two end up joining Josh and Cornelia for lunch, and Josh is impressed by the young man's confidence (He's less impressed by the way Jamie thinks nothing of Josh's offer to pay the bill).
The two couples start spending more and more time together, which annoys Josh and Cornelia's friends. Soon enough, Josh returns from his eight-year hiatus on his latest documentary, while Jamie starts a new project under Josh's guidance.
The film gets a lot of mileage out of its early observational humor (A montage of the older couple's domestic tranquility juxtaposed with the younger couple's more adventurous/odd lifestyle is particularly funny). The conflict, such as it is, in this section is entirely generational, as Josh and Cornelia try to fit in with Jamie and Darby with increasingly silly results (Cornelia, for example, quickly takes to hip-hop dancing).
It's broad stuff. Baumbach's film is set in the present and, as such, contains all the current trends of the younger generation (Jamie is the embodiment of a hipster, although he suggests he dislikes labels, which basically cements his status) and the one closer to retirement than college. Underneath the details of contemporary life, there's an emotional core that transcends whatever modern cultural quirks are on display here.
There's something brutally but sympathetically honest in the way Josh and Cornelia's attempts to rediscover their youth is simply a method of denying the truth of aging. While riding a bike with Jamie, Josh pulls a muscle, which leads to a visit to the doctor that results in learning that he has arthritis, and that revelation results in further denials. Baumbach saves his pointed barbs for more deserving targets, such as in a pitch meeting with an oblivious financier and during a session with a New Age shaman who gives the participants a hallucinogenic that results in profuse vomiting.
The turning point arrives with Jamie's own attempt at filmmaking, which forces Josh to question everything he thought he knew about his protégé. Here, the conflict narrows in on the distinctions between Josh and Jamie that have less to do with age and more to do with the specifics of their individual personalities. It is unfortunate that Cornelia, who is as important as the two male leads in the first half of the film, and Darby, who exists primarily to offer a plot point late in the story, are relegated to the background once this conflict arises.
The plotting is broader as the film progresses, but its observations become more precise. It's a fine balancing act, which is also a good way to describe the film's treatment of its inter-generational conflict. While We're Young doesn't allow either generation here to "win," but it does let another generation have the last laugh.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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