While We’re Young (2014)
Life never gets old.
It is said that every new generation threatens the one before, but perhaps the most intriguing of all generation gaps are those that occur at moments in time when societies are in the midst of undergoing enormous technological and cultural transitions. Surprisingly, we find ourselves in such a moment right now. So what happens when Gen X-ers — the last adults to be raised before the Internet and social media upended contemporary culture — collide with Generation Z? This is the question at the heart of Noah Baumbach’s poignant and piercingly honest picture, While We’re Young, a cross-generational comedy of manners, a film about aging, ambition, and achievement which captures the peculiar, upended logic of urban sophisticates, where older individuals embrace iPads and Netflix, while the younger ones crave vinyl records and vintage VHS tapes. A moving portrait of a marriage tested by the invading forces of youth, While We’re Young tells the story of two couples — one in their 40s the other in their 20s — who discover in one another, perplexing differences but the same unwavering dreams of success.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia Srebnick, a happily married middle-aged couple living in New York, both members of the city’s thriving creative class. Following several failed attempts at starting a family — with the duo being physically incapable of producing offspring — they concurrently come to the realization that they’re okay with simply being a twosome. However, Josh and Cornelia desperately try to bring meaning and significance to their lives through their artistic professions, both highly occupied and deeply involved in their respective careers. But as Josh labors away over the umpteenth edit of his analytical new documentary, it becomes plainly evident that he has hit a dry patch and that something is clearly missing from his life.
Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a free-spirited junior couple, seemingly carving out an alluringly retro, post-digital way of life, who are spontaneous and untethered, ready to drop everything in pursuit of their latest passion — retro board games one day, making their own artisanal ice-cream the next. For Josh, it’s as if a door has opened back to his youth — or a youth he wishes he once had. Nonetheless, it’s not long before the restless forty-somethings, Josh and Cornelia, throw aside mates their own age — including best friends Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) whose lives have been recently altered by newfangled parenthood — to trail after these young hipsters who seem so plugged in, so uninhibited, so ‘Brooklyn cool’ and seemingly live their lives as art. ‘Before we met,’ Josh admits to Jamie, ‘the only two feelings I had left were wistful and disdainful.’ But is this new inspiration enough to sustain a friendship — and collaboration between filmmakers Josh and Jamie — with a couple twenty years younger?’
Within his prior works, writer-director Noah Baumbach has excavated the angst of children of divorce, explored themes of loneliness and failure, and within his most recently endeavor, the highly acclaimed Frances Ha (2012), showcased the exuberant essence of youthfulness — what it means to be young and in search of identity. To date, Baumbach’s celebrated filmography has been built around closely observing and examining people at moments in their lives where they are at their most intensely, and often absurdly, human. His latest exploit, While We’re Young, is no exception, though this film may possibly be Baumbach’s funniest, broadest, and most colorful to date.
With a certain timelessness to the narrative, clearly referencing Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s influential and revealing 1873 play, The Master Builder — which centers on and around an aging, competitive architect who fears he is about to be overtaken by the next generation and becomes obsessively infatuated with a younger woman — the story of While We’re Young, according to Baumbach, emerged out of two weaving strands: the first, a desire to render the very specific dynamics of our era’s relationships — marriages, friendships, and the places they interconnect — in vivid detail; and second, a need to confront the realization that he himself has bid farewell to the vanguard of youthful artists and become someone unsettlingly ‘established.’ A kind of personal, self-reflective piece for Baumbach, he acknowledges, ‘every generation has to confront becoming old fogeys,’ and this film is an upbeat, yet real glance into the crisis of middle-aged life nostalgia. Clearly being able to relate, Baumbach states, ‘we all come to that point where we look at younger people and say ‘oh, we did it so much better,’ or the reverse — ‘oh, they are doing it so much better than we did,’’ highlighting this notion throughout his narrative.
Baumbach’s screenplay shrewdly plays around with the ironies of a world in which an older generation works tirelessly to keep adapting to — and acclimatizing with — the latest-breaking tech gadgets, whereas the younger generation relishes in hand-making their own furniture, favor typewriters over laptops, and, in Jamie and Darby’s case, keep egg-laying hens in their apartment. Never taking any real side on the subject, While We’re Young comments on the implications of both new and old technology and its rapid progression, where the film’s characters — two New York couples who oddly become improbable comrades — emerge out of this particular time frame, an age in which the unprecedented acceleration of technology and its constant advancements heavily imprint on social life and present-day culture. When audiences are first introduced to Josh and Cornelia, they’re doing just fine, but perhaps ‘just fine’ isn’t necessarily where they expected to be at this juncture of their lives; the first half of the picture explores exactly this. The introductory portion on the flick — which makes some sharp observations on ageing — works rather well, as this forty-something couple are shaken out of the rut of their lives; they begin wearing jaunty hats and participate in oddball spiritual retreats, thanks to the sudden friendship with younger, hard-to-resist, sky’s-the-limit couple, Jamie and Darcy. This is skilfully juxtaposed with Josh and Cornelia’s increasing detachment with their old friends, Fletcher and Marina, who are caught up in the frenzy of newborn baby life. Baumbach’s insights are nested within his scenes and characters, where the smallest line or moment can strike home for anyone who’s ever felt out of place for age related reasons — and I, of all people, can most certainly relate.
In the film’s second half, Jamie’s relationship with Josh takes on a more sinister tone; his intentions are called into question and so is the recent friendship with the Srebnicks. While it’s certainly good character work, the film’s very nature becomes muddled, and its message slightly confusing. This plot advancement plays well initially, as Jamie reveals himself to be — just like Josh — a documentarian, and one who — unlike Josh — seems to have everything work out perfectly for him at every step of the film making process; it prompts Josh to start questioning himself about whether he has, after all, squandered away his youth on something that was never meant to be. But as the picture advances, the story takes a moody, semi-thriller turn and by the time Josh barrels toward an awkward showdown with Jamie, the essence of Baumbach’s narrative seems to have been forgotten, as does the point he was trying to make with the film in the first place.
Ben Stiller — in his second collaboration with Noah Baumbach, following 2010’s Greenberg — is fantastic as Josh Srebnick, a man who is at a loss as to when exactly he crossed the threshold into so-called maturity. Perfectly harmonizing the character’s unwillingness to give up on the unfulfilled dreams of his youth, and insecurities in trying to connect with a changing culture he secretly resents — particularly as he plods away on the six-hour documentary opus he’s been making for the last decade — Stiller encapsulates Josh wonderfully, as he skillfully balances the script’s comedy and drama nuances, authentically displaying the character’s vulnerability, stubbornness, integrity and youthfulness — Stiller is a much more commanding dramatic performer than slapstick comedian. Alongside Stiller is the beautiful Naomi Watts, Mulholland Dr. (2001), starring as Cornelia Srebnick, Josh’s devoted wife. Juggling several emotional complications — including Josh’s competitiveness with her legendary filmmaker father, Leslie Breitbart, played by veteran actor Charles Grodin, Midnight Run (1988), while confronting her own issues of fertility and loyalty — Watts excels in all aspects of the role. Possibly the actresses’ most comedic piece to date, a brave and willing Watts gives it her all, conveying Cornelia’s intuitiveness and spirit, while simultaneously delving into physical comedy, particularly when Cornelia finds herself attending Darby’s advanced hip-hop class and is seen gamely flailing her less than flexible body to Tupac’s ‘Hit ‘Em Up.’
For the catalytic role of Jamie, whose sincerity comes off as infectious, yet his motives come into question, Adam Driver — who previously worked with Baumbach on the black-and-white Frances Ha — renders the charismatic artist impeccably. A driven, magnanimous documentarian hoping to collaborate with Josh — someone who he admires — or somewhat of a con artist, having no qualms stepping on others to climb the ladder to his own success — or possibly both things at once — Driver fully embodies the wide eyed, hipster. Similarly, Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia! (2008), nails the part of Jamie’s wife, Darby, walking the thin line between being a free spirit and a marginally confused, lost spirit. Together the two come across as the essence of unpredictable spontaneity, operating under a whole different set of cultural and moral rules to Josh and Cornelia. Rounding out the ensemble cast are various winning second tier choices, including a sly Adam Horovitz, better known as Ad-Rock of Beastie Boys fame, who plays Fletcher, and Tony-nominated actress Maria Dizzia in the role of Marina, adding their own unique flair and charisma to proceedings.
Reuniting with Frances Ha director of photography, Sam Levy, While We’re Young was shot entirely on location in Brooklyn, Manhattan and upstate New York. Chiefly set in Brooklyn — which has now become famed for its critical mass of bearded hipsters — as opposed to Manhattan, what we see on screen is not a mythical portrayal of the city, but rather, a realistic depiction, which is part of the natural fabric of the ‘artistically inclined’ characters’ social lives — where the spots individuals choose to ‘hang out’ are reflective of their generation, and same goes with clothing and/or musical taste. Just like its top-shelf performances, the film’s visual and auditory elements are of a quality standard, as attention to detail has been given to each and every component. This goes right down to the music, which mixes a score by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Greenberg (2010), into a soundtrack that weaves together artists as diverse as Vivaldi, David Bowie, A Tribe Called Quest, and HAIM.
Although While We’re Young may not completely come together as a coherent whole — sometimes feeling slightly uneven — its shortcoming shouldn’t detract from the quiet wonders of this melding of generations; a smart, whimsical, bitingly real film about generations at odds, artistic validation and finding oneself at any age. It’s a pleasure to spend time with the leading ‘foursome,’ characters so real and rounded, brought to life by a cast of illustrious performers, where we recognize in them the abandon of youth and the relative stability of age. In his offbeat way, Baumbach is warning us that trade-offs between the age groups may be less rigid than we have been taught to expect. Like the film itself, it’s a welcome insight, one that’s filled with both hope and maturity. The finishing detail of the picture — an increasingly familiar image of a toddler swiping through a smart phone with near natural ease — leaves behind a reminder that the cycle continues. Even as Generation X comes to grips with the ‘cramps and pains’ of growing past their heyday, the next generational rifts are already beginning to emerge.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner
While We’re Young is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia