Noah Baumbach has floated on the periphery of the mainstream for roughly two decades, and has done so with elegance, restraint and wry wit.
After his debut Kicking and Screaming, he arguably ‘broke’ onto the scene with ‘The Squid and The Whale’. Thereafter he has collaborated with Wes Anderson in a writerly capacity on two films, and has gone on to direct Nicole Kidman in Margot and the Wedding, Ben Stiller in Greenberg and his latest creative collaborator, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha.
His latest offering While We’re Young is being described as his most accessible, genuinely funny and heartfelt film, and certainly seems to be the most critically well-received. It continues in the vein of Frances Ha, with a higher dose of conviviality than the bleak portraits Squid and Margot paint.
WWY centres around a generational collide between two couples; the 40-something Manhattanites Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), and the 20-something Brooklynites Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). It’s like a modernisation or inversion of the geographical conflict between East and West Egg and to quote Fitzgerald there is ” a bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them”.
Jamie and Darby are the glittering, fashionable inhabitants of East Egg, a.k.a. Brooklyn and rather than being grotesquely wealthy, they’re enviably unhindered by material posessions. Josh and Cornelia, meanwhile, jaded by their middle-class trappings and the complacence that comes with it are looking out across a bay, towards a green light, aspiring to have what they have. Reinvigorated by the presence of their underlings; they begin to (gasp) hang out with these bright, young things who have an infectious verve and energy for life.
What ensues as the two couples become more entwined is a sharply observed meditation on the alienation the middle aged can feel in trying to stay relevant.
No longer young enough to pull off certain looks or phrases, yet not quite of the original generation that has been visiting ‘vintage’ cafes and hangouts since their opening, Josh and Cornelia merely don’t belong. Feeling increasingly distanced from their baby-booming friends, they seek solace in up-tempo hip-hop classes and New Age holistic retreats (culminating in a slightly misjudged vomiting orgy). They have fallen through the generational cracks.
In one particularly illuminating sequence we see Josh and Cornelia’s lives dominated by the digital; relying on remote controls and laptop screens to quench their thirst for knowledge and entertainment. Contrastingly, Jamie and Darby play boardgames, listen to vinyl, throw street parties and basically do everything that their elders have cast aside. “It’s like their apartment is full of stuff we threw out,” observes Cornelia.
Noah Baumbach has his finger on the pulse and effectively traverses the line between what’s considered ironically and genuinely cool. Everything the 40-somethings attempt feels antiquated and try-hard (note – never ever think a trilby hat is a good look), where the 20-something pull it off with quirky effortlessness. Youth’s obsession with nostalgia and erstwhile eras is infintely relatable, and it’s a topic Baumbach navigates with great dexterity.
But as Josh quickly discovers, the underlings become usurpers, not content to learn from their predecessors they have designs to oust them, or such is the source of Josh’s anxiety. His position of status as a visionary documentarian is crumbling beneath him. He’s been working on a stale documentary on US power structures and political economy for a decade, and when Jamie’s success starts to ignite with comparable ease, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
The first half remains bubbly and laugh-out-loud hilarious, charged with quickfire dialogue and gratifying physical comedy. (Naomi Watts has indeed still got it). But as the drama of the plot kicks in, an anxiousness and overwroughtness seeps into the narrative. Baumbach has contrived the ending a tad too much, and there’s something incredibly uneasy and predictable about its resolution. Albeit funny. But in a kind of resigned, lopsided smile kind of way.
Another aspect of the film that began to grate was that of the female counterparts of the two couples paling into the background. They are companion pieces to the headlining male ego. Film producers and ice-cream makers they may be, but Watts and Seyfried are given little more to work with than an updated version of the disatisfied housewife, expressing discontent with their husband’s decisions.
The real couple of the film is Josh and Jamie; filmmaker and fan, artist and muse, creative collaborators and eventually sparring rivals. Ben Stiller does solid work as a paranoid, anxious cynic, something not at all dissimilar from Woody Allen in most of his films. Equally Adam Driver turns in an affable, and at times ominous performance, building upon the kookiness of his famed Girls character, with a sly vindication.
Baumbach’s film hangs on fairly obvious juxtapositions; young vs. old, dormant vs. nascent, hip vs. hip replacement, and it’s strength lies in its ability to reserve judgement – it’s left ambiguous as to whether old and young can authentically integrate and happily coexist.
Yet there’s also an emotional vacuum at the centre of While We’re Young, because it’s hard to care about either generation. Jamie throbs with a cold-blooded ambition, Josh moans too much and everyone is a bit pretentious quite frankly. But perhaps that’s the point – they’re both as bad as each other.
There’s enough keenly observed comedy and sublime witticisms to sustain one’s attention, so that some of the barbed, indelicate moments don’t entirely thwart Baumbach’s admirable efforts at lightheartedness. And if this becomes an anthem for making the most of youth, as opposed to One Direction’s similarly titled ‘Live While We’re Young’, then that’s something I’m all for.
Verdict: A refreshingly different Baumbach film. Some parts a tad didactic and over-done, other parts resonant, jaunty and incredibly funny. At the very least, it will have you ditching Instagram for the day and reaching for the vinyl. Also look out for a wonderful cameo from Charles Grodin.