by Philip Price
Before we start anything here, it should be noted that I’ve only seen two other Noah Baumbach pictures. While I’ve generally enjoyed what I’ve seen so far and certainly have an interest in earlier films such as “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding,” as of this writing I’ve only seen “Greenberg” and the rather infectious “Frances Ha.” I state this at the beginning to preface that while I found his latest, “While We’re Young,” to be much more accomplished and substantial on first viewing than anything I’ve seen of his prior work I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he was repeating himself in some way, on some major themes. Heck, some of what Ben Stiller’s character goes through here feels like it has some shades in his titular “Greenberg” character, but I honestly don’t remember that film well enough to say for sure. That concern aside, what I do know for sure is how strong this film hit me, how its ideas are universally relatable despite depicting a very specific niche and simply how magnificent the writing is. While the dialogue is quick and forms full characters who have specific and individual mindsets intact I can’t imagine the hours poured over the page by Baumbach in order to create this natural ease with which each of these characters speak. In a word, the characters and the dialogue are more than archetypes or composites of several other people, but they are authentic and authenticity is essentially what “While We’re Young” is all about. Baumbach, who both wrote and directed this film, is 45 years old. Stiller, who in real life is 49, plays a very specific 44-year-old and in that small detail it is apparent that Stiller serves as the Baumbach surrogate. Wondering how he came to be on the other side of life, the one where striking and profound realizations such as knowing things exist that he’ll never do must be accepted. It is a film that both acts as a study in adjusting to getting older while at the same time dealing with accepting the generational differences of the current young people and the culture that existed 20 years prior. The film opens with the quote from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” where Hilda suggests to Solness that he open the door to the younger generation he fears. The thing is it’s not whether he opens the door or not that’s the real decision, but how far.
We first meet Stiller’s Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) as they visit friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Beastie Boys Ad-Rock AKA Adam Horovitz) who have just had their first child. While both couples are in their mid-40s and in themselves represent a generation having kids at an older age both Josh and Cornelia look at the new baby and seem to wonder what they might be missing out on. It seems the couple attempted to have children earlier in their marriage with more than a few failed attempts, miscarriages and procedures making them question whether or not they were meant to be parents at all. They have moved on, coming up with countless justifications as to why their lives are just as good, if not more their own for not having children. They can be spontaneous, they can travel or do any number of things they tell themselves, but hardly follow through on. It is when Josh, a documentary filmmaker (which is thankfully more vital to the plot than simply being another quirky detail), meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) that he becomes enraptured in the free-wheeling lifestyle they have adopted that Josh attributes to their youth. Jamie and Darby are in their mid- to late-20s and live in a New York loft with a roommate that looks so perfectly put-together by a hipster that it almost contradicts the hipster mantra. Watching movies on VHS, listening to music on vinyl and playing board games rather than accessing Netflix, transferring their CD’s to iTunes and downloading apps on their iPads, Jamie and Darby seem to yearn for the nostalgia of yesteryear, where to them it seems things were of a simpler time whereas Josh and Cornelia embrace the changing technology, if not the culture, to keep up with the times. It is in Josh’s attempt to emulate Jamie that we go on this journey of self-discovery, this midlife crisis exemplified of sorts that shows not only Josh’s transition in being able to accept and be comfortable with who he “authentically” is, but in adjusting to this new stage of life he’s entering.
There is a large portion early in the film when we are introduced to Driver and Seyfried’s characters that I became slightly annoyed. It was an initial reaction to the film in that it seemed to be preaching the age-old lesson of being comfortable in your own skin while dressing it up in contemporary clothing and fancy language while having its characters try way too hard. Everything I mentioned about Jamie and Darby adopting older means of doing things felt more forced than a natural inclination or sincere in any way and while I gave the film the benefit of the doubt in thinking such extremes were done in order to make a point, part of me believes Baumbach really lives in this kind of hipster environment where he strives to retain such a lifestyle more out of how he wants to feel about his life than what it actually is. Of course, as a semi-popular director of quirky indie films who’s also written for Wes Anderson, Baumbach is probably the most credible hipster around and it is his intention with the plot within “While We’re Young” and it’s main ideas that turned me from a pessimistic viewer of the mind that I’d heard this all before to a viewer wondering if what Baumbach was actually doing was providing a commentary on the falsehood of building our own facades, actually detracting from individuality no matter a groups principles and thus creating another subculture instead of spurning true individuality, and using the hipster movement as a target to make his point. If not using a word as harsh as target it would seem it is at least something along these lines and in Baumbach making Josh the more naive, hopeful person more likely to be filled with hope, wonder and optimism that we all wish life consisted of he paints his outward appearance, his own facade that people know him by while Jamie seems to be an incarnation of the success-driven young man he had to be in order to reach this seemingly wonder-filled adult he has become. The cynical, hungry, merciless 20-something he once was afforded him the abilities and status he currently enjoys.
With this kind of dynamic in mind, realizing the director is not only telling a story of self-discovery and exploring the facets of what each choice might mean or represent and if the opinions of those your own age or those of your younger peers matter more we come to understand this is also Baumbach’s way of working through his own transitional experiences. This film is his own little trip of self-discovery. He acknowledges the disappointing truth that the magic of a pursuit, whether it be in love or in a project, is largely lost once that pursuit comes to the finish line or that goal is obtained. His kind of epiphany comes in the form of acknowledging the magic you have readily available in your everyday life deserves more than you likely give it. That there is no point in hoping for what you know you can’t have, that the truly meaningful moments, the lasting things in life are those that come effortlessly if you give the time you’re granted a real shot rather than dwelling on the past or what the future may or may not hold. As simple as this type of advice might seem it is rather profound when going through such a journey as the one we are privy to with Josh and Cornelia. When they are faced with the attraction of youth while the disappointment of getting older hovers they expect things to begin to lose their luster, but distance adds perspective and inherently adds quality. Sure, “While We’re Young” may be intent on somewhat spoofing the stereotypes of hipster culture or the lifestyles of the younger population in general, but the film itself takes into consideration what it can learn from both ends of the spectrum and applies that to a mentality that gives our main character a kind of peace. We all want things, certain things, and no matter if we’re young or old doing what we have to do to obtain those things doesn’t always make us good or bad, but it’s more the angle we come at things determined by our stage in life and the amount of perspective we’ve accrued that is truly telling. It is a film set around trying to be as authentic about achieving these life goals as possible yet being able to accept the shifts in popular culture as they change from your own.
While this has been anything but short, “While We’re Young” is the kind of film that inspires a lot of thought, a good amount of contemplation and reflection as well as just some good ole’ fashioned analysis. And so, in short, I could go on to say how well Stiller and Watts were or moreover what an impression Driver leaves while Seyfried is somewhat underwritten and disregarded in the second half of the film or even how I wish Charles Grodin was in more of this, but these factors aren’t what matter about a movie like this. What matters is how well it conveys these complex, somewhat philosophical questions to an audience that understands them in a way they can both apply to their own lives or learn from them to better ready themselves for that inevitable midlife crisis. Midlife crisis feels like such a cheap way of putting it, but in essence that’s what we have and Baumbach has made not so much a statement on this strange time in life, but as the film sticks to its oft-repeated thesis that we don’t know the answers, but discover them he is making observations about how we all get old even if we never feel like we actually grew up.