Thursday, May 7, 2015

Film Review - While We're Young

Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young opens with a quote from Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder:

Solness: “I’ve become so disturbed by younger people. They upset me so much that I’ve closed my doors.”

Hilde: “Maybe you should open the door and let them in.”

Paul McCartney’s Let ‘Em In echoes this same sentiment in the film’s closing credits.

It’s one of two contrasting sentiments that the movie gives us; the other is best exemplified by James Murphy’s opening and closing lullaby rendition of David Bowie’s Golden Years, which is alternately both sweet and unnerving. Let them in, yes, but also be wary. It’s these two contrasting viewpoints that make While We’re Young so rich and complex.

The first act by itself is such a funny observation on the cultural and behavioral differences between modern-day twenty-somethings and middle-aged adults that I was caught off-guard when the film goes even deeper. Even more so than Baumbach’s masterful Frances Ha (2013), While We’re Young packs it in. This movie keeps expanding as it goes along in unexpected ways, taking on larger themes and ideas with every passing minute. I kept waiting for it to not quite manage all of these things successfully  – but Baumbach pulls it together beautifully.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as married couple Josh and Cornelia. He’s a documentarian who has been toiling away on the same film for eight years, while she produces the films of her legendary documentary filmmaker father, Leslie Breitbart (the great Charles Grodin, whose return to movies, in both this movie and last year’s The Humbling, is a beautiful thing). Josh was once Leslie’s protégé, but, after marrying his daughter, he’s distanced himself from the filmmaker in order to establish his own career.

When Josh and Cornelia meet a younger married couple, the impossibly hip Brooklynites Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) after Josh’s lecture to a documentary film class at Columbia, they suddenly find themselves spending all of their time with two people twenty years their junior. Jamie, a self-professed fan of Josh’s films, asks him to collaborate on an idea for a documentary. At first, Josh declines, but then, acknowledging his past unwillingness to collaborate with others, he opens up to Jamie’s idea. Both Josh and Cornelia are enamored by the young couple’s liveliness, and let them both in fully.

But what starts as admiration and even genuine friendship eventually grows into annoyance – after all, these kids don’t even know what they’re referencing half the time. “That’s a thing I actually experienced – to him, its just some kitschy thing he saw on YouTube,” Josh complains of an old commercial James quotes ironically. Finally, annoyance leads to disgust, as Josh discovers that Jamie’s hip exterior masks a morally questionable code of ethics.

The film’s third act is insane – when Josh exposes Jamie in the middle of a Lincoln Center tribute to Leslie, it’s a kind of fantasy situation in which Baumbach is able to articulate his frustration with a set of values in front of this cast of characters, and they’re all able to fight it out and respond with their own perspectives. It’s absolutely hilarious, beautiful and would never happen in real life. Thankfully, While We’re Young has very little interest in naturalism (there’s one scene in particular that feels like a bad dream – and Stiller even says something to that effect.) So many movies nowadays are concerned with naturalism, but Baumbach proves – as do Woody Allen, Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson in their films – that it’s rarely as effective as a slightly artificial movie world in terms of hinting at some kind of greater truth.

It’s frustrating to watch Jamie experience the kind of success that’s eluded Josh for years, despite the fact that Jamie doesn’t adhere to either the ethics of documentary filmmaking or really any basic values as a decent person. And when Josh finally exposes him as a fraud, nobody even seems to really mind.

In the end sequence at Lincoln Center, Leslie admits that the nature of what constitutes “truth” in filmmaking is changing, and we have to be open to that. “I’m not sure it matters,” Leslie says, referring to the falsehoods in Jamie’s documentary. Leslie is more accepting that the times are changing, and that the “how” of Jamie’s film matters less than the effect of the movie. In the end, Josh can’t stop this guy from succeeding. Jamie’s values are now the world’s values – at the expense of his success in documentary filmmaking even meaning anything, since everyone is now a documentary filmmaker. It’s just like the toddler playing with an iPhone and taking pictures in the film’s last scene – everyone is recording everything, and it all means nothing.

Leslie, on his way out after a storied career, is more open to this change because he had all of the success he ever wanted doing it the old way. And now, just as Josh is trying to achieve that same success in his own life, in comes this new way of doing things – a new way of earning respect as a filmmaker. It’s comparable to the fact that I’ll never be able to achieve what Martin Scorsese achieved – partially because the landscape of filmmaking is changing so rapidly. It’s easier for someone who ruled the day in their field to be open to the future, because they had their time. But what about my time? What about Josh’s time? While We’re Young seems to share that frustration.

Even as they’re about to embark on adopting their own child in the final scene, both Josh and Cornelia are kind of disgusted and disturbed by this toddler taking pictures with an iPhone. The future is scary. And pretty soon, all those things that seemed special before and actually meant something won’t mean anything any longer. If that sounds like old man talk, it’s because – to quote Stiller – I am an old man! (By the way, I’m well aware that I’m closer in age to Jamie, even though I identify more with Josh and his values.)

While You’re Young is a wonderfully angry film. Baumbach doesn’t settle for some kind of wishy-washy “Well, each generation is different from the last one, and each one is valid in their own ways“ attitude. What makes the movie work is that it has a perspective. When it wants to be, it is incisively sharp, indicting the generational values of millennials while also accepting the fact that accepted values and norms are changing.

Even as the film ends with Josh admitting that Jamie “isn’t evil – he’s just young,” the movie still has a perspective, which is that these people are awful. And it’s right. Take Josh’s painful meeting with Jamie’s corporate hedge-fund friend. Sure, Josh’s pitch for his years-in-the-making documentary may not be very streamlined or “sellable” – but it’s humiliating for him to have to explain his movie to the most vapid potential investor imaginable. It’s going to be a scary world when people like that guy are in charge – and they may already be.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy Noah Baumback movies. They connect with real-world issues and at least give me something I can relate to somewhat instead of trying to create a plot that's so "out there" it's considered really good.