Throughout his filmography, Noah Baumbach has tended to focus on relationships — whether the friendships that bind or restrict in Frances Ha and Kicking and Screaming or the floundering romances of The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg. His latest feature, While We’re Young, tends to straddle both, albeit minus the biting wit we’ve come to expect from his work. There’s a generational divide in his sights, the film ostensibily making a mockery of young hipsters who pine for the tactile objects and aesthetics of the past as well as those stuck in middle-age, unable to come to terms with their fading youth. Whilst much of the visual humour attached to each of these caricatures does land, the film tends to falter as it loses sight of this central conceit; Baumbach gets sidetracked with a subplot about documentary ethics that only clumsily ties back into his central thematic concern. When it acts to be just a minor farce, though, While We’re Young is at its strongest.
The film follows two couples, one young, one older; Josh (Ben Stiller) is an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker whose wasted promise comes as a result of his inability to follow-through on projects, his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is a documentary producer, not of Josh’s work but rather her father’s (Charles Grodin), who is a legendary documentarian in the Wiseman mould. The younger married duo, aspiring filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver) and the artisinal ice-cream making Darby (Amanda Seyfried), push their way into the life of Josh and Cornelia after sitting in on a community college lecture Josh delivers. We get the expected pratfalls of 40-somethings attempting to ingrain themselves in youth culture, but more amusingly we get twenty-somethings feigning at cultural appreciation via tactile artistic objects.
It’s interesting to compare While We’re Young to Listen Up Philip, another recent theatrical release here focusing on figures of artistic renown and the idea of affectation passed off as passion. Whilst the film stumbles with the idea of authenticity in documentary, one of the stronger elements in the film is its look at kitsch and the re-appropriation of popular culture. Baumbach already wrote the best line about affectation, in his debut Kicking and Screaming, where a character succinctly notes that their idiosyncracies are just “affectations that became habits” and here, as in many of his films, his characters echoe that sentiment, from claiming jingles they saw on YouTube as their own to the film’s metatextual re-purposing of Beastie Boy Ad-Rock as a Wilco-loving father. In a simple but effective early scene, Jamie shows Josh his mammoth vinyl collection and Josh tells him that his own collection is about the same in scope, though all on CDs. Not content to let the materialism speak for itself, Baumbach has Jamie bring down one record in particular and lower the needle down on it; the background music for their more broad conversation on living freely is Hall & Oates’ “All Night Long”.
Two Greenberg alums are here in While We’re Young, Stiller as a middle-aged sad sack and James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem, providing a sparse musical score, which amusingly comes across as a baby’s lullaby filtered through a GameBoy. Something that isn’t well carried across from Greenberg, or even The Squid and the Whale, is the focus on creative works. In both of those films the act of musicianship and novel-writing is oft-talked about but rarely shown, in While We’re Young Baumbach seems to be desperate to show off his documentary pastiche, the best of which is Jamie’s short about the most famous person in his friend’s phone contacts. By focusing on the ethics (and aesthetics) of documentary filmmaking more and more over the film’s runtime, which feels like a distraction from the tale of faded youth and marriage, Baumbach ends up delivering a half-baked commentary on art itself; the film’s climax at a lifetime achievement award ceremony for Grodin’s character feels flown in from an entirely different film and grinds all momentum to a halt.
Performance-wise, the younger actors completely steal the show. Stiller is good, but his performance can’t help but be a less interesting riff on Roger Greenberg, whilst Naomi Watts is given about as much to work with here as in Birdman, which is to say virtually nothing of note. Amanda Seyfried turns in a quietly impressive performance, the true emotional center of the film, whilst also being able to bring big laughs (she has one of the film’s best lines, delivered after Josh sees her making out with a stranger on a bike). Adam Driver continues his stretch of solid feature performances; here he’s on par with his short turn in Frances Ha, yet different in that he seems to almost relish how underwritten his character is, his performance an act of minor myth-making, contrary to Schwartzman in Philip, Driver becomes more unlikable over the runtime.
At times, While We’re Young gives off the impression of a tossed off exercize, a film made in the breath between two seemingly significant ones – Frances Ha and the forthcoming Mistress America. It lacks his usual pervasive wit, though the shift to sight gags is surprising and at times refreshing.1 Some of these work wonderfully, whilst others feel too easy – Naomi Watts dancing to “hip-hop”, a baby playing with an iPhone among the cringeworthy shots. The script is also only vaguely of the present day, bar some references to iPhones (a great line about using your phone at the dinner table notwithstanding), it could have been made years ago, clipping its pointed insight.2 Despite its flimsy third act, though, it manages some big laughs throughout, a surprising (and endearingly) goofy turn for Baumbach.
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