Watching the trailer to WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, you would think this is a film about getting old. Well, it is and it’s not. When it is, it’s warm, witty and mildly funny. When it’s not, it borrows from a classic film from 1950. (If I tell you the name of the film, I’ll be revealing too much. That’s how similar they are.)
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are 40-something New Yorkers whose lives are at a crossroads. Josh is a documentary filmmaker who has been working on his latest film project for close to ten years. He’s run out of grant money but that’s not stopping him from adding more footage to what he has already shot. To make ends meet, he lectures in filmmaking at a continuing education programme in the city. Judging from their nice home, Cornelia is clearly the major breadwinner here but we never find out what she does. We do know, though, that she was involved in film production in the past. Her father, Leslie (Charles Grodin), is a legendary documentary filmmaker. Josh doesn’t care much for Leslie but it’s probably just a case of professional jealousy.
As their best friends start gravitating towards other couples who, like all their friends, have young families, Josh and Cornelia, who never wanted to have children (or so they tell themselves and everyone else), find themselves increasingly unable to relate. At the same time, Josh and Cornelia meet a young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver, FRANCES HA; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried, MAMMA MIA!), who are a pair of 25-year-old uber-hipsters from Brooklyn. These two are cooler than cool. The furniture in their loft is an eclectic assortment of other people’s castoffs, they have a wall of vinyl record albums along with a vintage stereo system to play them, they eschew the subway system for their cheap bicycles and they refuse to be handcuffed by today’s technology. Jamie is also a documentary filmmaker and Darby makes artisanal ice cream. Way cool. Josh and Cornelia see themselves, or how they wished they could have been 20 years earlier, in the young couple and they start hanging out with them, much to the confusion and derision of their best friends.
Jamie has a very rough idea for a documentary about a childhood friend, and Josh offers to help him with it. As luck happens, and luck always seems to be on Jamie’s side, the film quickly becomes much bigger than when it started out and Jamie enlists Cornelia, her father and Josh’s own potential investor to help him finish it. Jamie seems poised for filmmaking greatness…
This is where WHILE WE’RE YOUNG goes off the rails. What starts out as a light comedy about a pair of Gen-Xers who try swimming upstream against the current of life suddenly morphs into something dark. Though the film still tries to pull out a few laughs, it’s too late. We’ve entered the Twilight Zone. (That’s not the film referred to earlier, by the way.)
If Woody Allen is the king of capturing New York angst on film then Noah Baumbach is the crown prince. Baumbach’s main characters all seem to suffer from an inability to come to terms with growing up, particularly while everyone around them is doing just that. To his credit, the director doesn’t shy away from making his characters likeable the way Allen did. In his earlier film, GREENBERG, Roger (also Ben Stiller) is a completely dislikeable, narcissistic complainer. We can’t help but feel that if he would just get out of his own way, he might find happiness. In FRANCES HA, Frances (Greta Gerwig) is likeable because she is resolutely cheerful after each of her stumbles but she, too, is her own worst enemy. In WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, Josh has likeable qualities but he is also a victim of his own ego. He wants to make an “authentic” documentary when there really is no such thing. All documentaries are subject to the viewpoint of the filmmakers. But in his determination to prove that he is right and everyone else is wrong, he makes himself and everyone around him miserable. (He and Cornelia have only convinced themselves that they’re not miserable.)
It seems that the happy people in Baumbach’s films are the ones who grow up and adapt. Is that his message? Judging from the ending of this film, I would say yes.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:05.)
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