Noah Baumbach’s films have often focussed on people who are negotiating change in their lives, usually linked to age, although the clearly-defined periods they are leaving and entering during the course of his stories are perhaps a little too rigidly-marked out. Life isn’t really like that, of course, but for the purposes of a screenplay and a drole 90-minute movie it’s a tried and tested device that can be applied to all kinds of characters.
Baumbach’s debut Kicking And Screaming took its cue from the likes of The Big Chill and St. Elmo’s Fire by detailing the growing pains of a group of college graduates who are unwilling to move on with their respective lives. In the more recent Frances Ha Greta Gerwig’s Frances was in the process of leaving behind her slightly wishy-washy mid-to-late 20s, all shared apartments and impromptu credit card-fuelled trips to Europe, for a career and new-found stability. Here it’s the turn of Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, playing early-40s couple Josh and Cornelia Schrebnick, both of whom are teetering on the edge of a mid-life crisis. Josh is a respected documentary filmmaker but work on his latest film has stalled and he lacks both funding and focus (‘It’s about America’ he says, unconvincingly). The affable but unfulfilled Cornelia has struggled to carve out a career of her own and the decade Josh has spent on his unfinished work has left the pair in a state of limbo. They have tried unsuccessfully to have children – a factor regularly suggested by Baumbach’s screenplay as the root cause of their problems – and as their friends (including ex-Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) are now tied up with babies the Schrebnicks feel that they no longer have anything in common with their normal peer group.
Saviours of sorts are presented in the form of 20-something hipsters Jamie (a magnificently smarmy Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie – a student filmmaker – flatters Josh at the end of a lecture and during a subsequent meal, and for the first 45 minutes or so Baumbach’s comedy hits all the notes you would expect as the two couples bond: Josh and Cornelia are both energised by Jamie and Darby (‘they make everything‘ enthuses a smitten Josh) and the older couple mimic and follow the younger pair around Brooklyn; Josh buys a trilby hat and a bike like Jamie’s but looks stupid, in the way that older men trying to look younger generally do, while Cornelia flees an awful mums-and-babies shindig but is similarly out of place when she joins Darby at a hip-hop dance class. As a foursome they attend an ayahuasca ceremony and, eventually, Josh begins to help Jamie on his own documentary, ostensibly about the rejection of fake online friendships in favour of real ones.
The prospect of some of Jamie and Darby’s cool rubbing off is obviously enticing; where Josh, Cornelia and their friends stare blankly at their smartphones and scroll endlessly through Netflix, Jamie and Darby use old typewriters, fabricate desks from reclaimed wood, watch VHS tapes, make their own ice cream and even have a pet chicken, unfairly kept in their loft conversion in a birdcage. A roommate named Tipper (Dree Hemingway) wanders about, semi-undressed, and wears a succession of ironic t-shirts bearing slogans like ‘Some College I Didn’t Go To’. The young are simultaneously carefree, knowing and fun, untethered by mortgages or kids and making the most of their energy, and for Josh and Cornelia it forces them to address where they are with regard to their own lives; as they solemnly point out, they were young not so long ago.
Cracks begin to appear, somewhat inevitably, and Baumbach wittily highlights the differences between the two age groups (there’s a tacit understanding that the older man pays the bills in restaurants and cafes, for example, without receiving any thanks). Yet there are more serious issues. Some of the things Jamie says do not quite add up. Meanwhile Josh begins to resent Jamie’s burgeoning success, his apparent talent at forming a cohesive documentary, his ability to secure funding with the minimum of fuss and the way he appropriates old advertising jingles in an ironic fashion. The patronage of Cornelia’s widely-respected documentarian father Leslie (Charles Grodin), with whom Josh has a troubled relationship, also adds complications. And so a friendship that first appears to benefit four people equally is slowly revealed to be of benefit to just one person.
The subject matter of Jamie’s film is entirely relevant. There is more to While We’re Young than it first seems, and although the straightforward comedy of the first half of the film works very well, there’s an unexpected sour taste to the second half that separates this smart movie from the pack. Baumbach’s screenplay gradually hones in on the subject of authenticity and sincerity, and as the older couple begin to realise that neither Jamie nor Darby will be able to provide either of them with any lasting happiness, the director slyly picks away at Jamie’s character to reveal a calculating, ruthless careerist who sums up a certain modern strand of entitled, overconfident, big city hipsterdom.
Baumbach delights in revealing Jamie and Darby’s lifestyle to be affected, not in the least bit genuine, and by showing the effort required to maintain the facade we see how unappealing it actually is (long before Josh and Cornelia catch on). Behind all the studied quirkiness Darby is unhappy, neglected and undergoing her own crisis of identity, while Jamie’s naked ambition makes him one of the more unpleasant and devious cinematic characters of the year to date (although, in a witheringly downbeat final scene, Baumbach suggests that such behaviour is a surefire route to success).
The sardonic swipes at hipster fakery generally hit the mark, although the demonisation of Jamie does feel somewhat excessive, and the public showdown that takes place between the two male leads is unnecessary, even though it acts as the catalyst that reverts Josh and Cornelia to type. By the end the two older characters are, in short, as we found them at the beginning of the film (although with renewed professional focus for Josh and a joint resolve to join their peers as parents). As they sit in an airport waiting lounge they stare at a young baby, who has picked up a smartphone and is mimicking the actions of one of its parents by pretending to call someone. The horrified looks sported by both Stiller and Watts reveal a sudden understanding that the feeling of being distant from (or out of touch with) younger / quicker / smarter generations is only going to get worse. It’s a tart full stop by this talented writer and director, who seems to be undergoing a similar kind of change himself, embracing the wider appeal of screwball comedy but refusing to completely let go of the acerbic style of his early career.
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried.
Cinematography: Sam Levy.
Editing: Jennifer Lame.
Music: James Murphy.
Running Time: 97 minutes.