' Cinema Romantico: While We're Young

Monday, April 13, 2015

While We're Young

Middle age has crept up on Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts). Suddenly years have passed in the wake of a momentous event and they don't even notice. One month’s planning now qualifies as “spontaneous”. They are resting beneath the warm blanket of routine, completely settled yet emotionally adrift. They both work in the field of documentary films, observing other lives while casually avoiding their own. At first they seem like a more highbrow, childless version of the couple in last year’s “Neighbors” forced to take evasive emotional maneuvers when a frat moves in next door. “While We’re Young”, however, goes beyond a crisis of aging to examine an aging (aged) man grappling with failure.


The obligatory bomb of Josh and Cornelia’s lives arrives in the form of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of married go-with-the-flow twenty somethings that prefer vinyl, hawk avocado ice cream and prefer bikes as their primary mode of transportation. I imagine they must be most of Middle America's idea of what constitutes every Brooklyn resident. Jamie introduces himself to Josh, claiming to have tracked down the latter’s hard-to-find filmmaking masterwork on VHS, immediately currying favor.

That, of course, is just the sort of reinforcement Josh needs. He is in the midst of an eight year odyssey to finish a documentary with a pitch so convoluted that every time he tries making it he simply spouts catchphrases in a circular maze of logic leading back to that one place where I imagine every single pitch meeting for a new HBO show ends..... “It’s about America.” In no time, Jamie is picking Josh’s brain and enlisting his and Cornelia’s help in helming his own film, one that purports to make Facebook “real”.

For a good chunk of “While We're Young” it seems as if writer/director Noah Baumbach – highfalutin’ Noah Baumbach – is settling his trademark sour intelligentsia into something approaching the outer limits of mainstream, broad(ish) comedy and set pieces. He puts Josh in a trilby to match Jamie’s which is vintage Hollywood clothes-as-character-behavioral-shift. He sends Cornelia off to hip-hop dancing classes where she shakes her booty (hysterically) with people of younger ages. They go on a spa retreat where they are induced to vomit up their emotional toxins. You wonder where all this is headed. It can’t be headed toward the painfully obvious conclusion of old people imparting their wisdom even as they re-connect with what it means to be young.


No one would confuse Baumbach as being master of cinematic long con. Typically his narratives, for all their conversational detours and moments where “nothing” “happens”, are on the straight and narrow. “Kicking and Screaming” flashed between future and present but trended toward a foregone conclusion. “Frances Ha” had all manner of flights of fancy but sustained the emotionally spastic arc of a struggling young adult. “While We’re Young”, however, reveals Josh's youthful elixir as a mere hoax by employing the trope of any number of standard-issue thrillers where a seemingly innocuous bit of story fluff is revealed as the vital clue that suddenly sends our protagonist’s mind spinning back through the entire story. It's a crazy tonal shift that works specifically because one of the phoniest instruments of “movie magic” is made to arouse questions of authenticity.

That Josh is a documentarian is no accident. This is the vessel by which he was and is determined to carve out some kind of truth about the world and about himself. But if all he has to show for it is a nebulous eight-years-and-counting mess that says nothing he can actually articulate than what does he really have? “The essence of art,” Michael Murphy said in “Manhattan”, “is to provide a kind of working-through”, and Josh has inadvertently used his art to work through himself and find that he's more or less amounted to nothing. Like so many Baumbach characters before him he runs headfirst into his own failings.

It is perhaps too easy yet nevertheless irresistible to view “While We’re Young” as Baumbach taking stock of his own place in life. After all, the period between his second and third feature films was exactly……eight years. And so perhaps that is why the film concludes with a tinge of hope rather than despair. Even so, it’s a cautious hope, letting it hang in the air, standing in the middle of the sunny and the dark side of the street. “While We’re Young” isn't so much a film about getting old as Josh coming to grips with what he has become. Hope becomes disappointment. And then it gave way to hope again. It’s the life crisis cycle.

1 comment:

The Fab Miss B said...

Can't wait to see this- I loved Frances Ha and I like the idea of calling the search for "authenticity" into question. Lovely review Nick!