Wednesday, April 29, 2015

While We're Young Movie Review

Whatever stage in life he’s at, Noah Baumbach has not stopped writing characters who fret about their own lives, where they’ve been, and where they’re headed. I get the feeling he’s a man who is always in tune with some level of dissatisfaction with his life. One shouldn’t confuse that with unhappiness. I think it’s probably natural to wonder about what you’ve done, the choices you’ve made, and whether you could be doing something better or more important. What separates Baumbach from most other people is that he’s attuned to those feelings probably in everyone around him. That’s why he’s so good at writing dialogue and characters that so precisely and concisely sum up complex emotions.

His latest film, While We’re Young, stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as Josh and Cornelia, a childless married couple living in New York as one of those middle-aged couples who talk about how happy they are not being tied down, but never actually take advantage of it. He’s a documentary filmmaker who’s been working on the same project for nearly a decade. He talks about it in a meandering description that indicates he has no grasp on the project. She is a producer who mostly works with her father (Charles Grodin), a legendary documentarian preparing to receive a lifetime achievement award. While We’re Young is both a major leap and a small step from Baumbach’s first feature, Kicking and Screaming, about a group of recent college grads adrift in their first official year as adults. Josh and Cornelia are adults, but part of them is still in a state of arrested development.

That is, until they meet Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a young Brooklyn couple who live their lives according to norms they seem to have culled from the recent past by reading kitschy Buzzfeed articles and viral Facebook posts. He builds furniture out of scrap wood. They prefer to sit without knowing the answer to something rather than jump to their smart phones. They are millennials born into a world of ubiquitous technology and all the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, but they reject it as inauthentic living.

This is the kind of role Stiller was born to play. Josh is a slightly neurotic forty-something who questions his life choices. Stiller has played similar characters before, but instead of going as slapstick as he does in Flirting with Disaster or Along Came Polly, his performance sits squarely in the middle of relatability, likeability, and realism. And it’s a far cry from the misanthropic ennui that washed down his character in Greenberg, his previous collaboration with Baumbach.

While We’re Young is Baumbach’s most mature work to date, which shouldn’t be so surprising considering how personal his screenplays always are. He’s grappling here with big questions of middle age. These are the issues that tend to lead to mid-life crises. What’s the value of my life? What have I contributed that’s meaningful? What have I missed out on? In the cases of Josh and Cornelia, it’s all compounded by their lack of offspring. Their best friends have a brand new baby that occupies all of their time, energy, and attention and dominates the conversation. Like most couples with new children, they expect everyone around them to have kids possibly in some quasi self-justifying way of proving that having kids was a good decision. Or maybe just so that they aren’t constantly reminded of the freedoms they’re missing. That’s why Josh and Cornelia find the younger couple to spend so much time with. They’re enervated by their freewheeling lifestyle while their parent friends are just embarrassed by it.

Notwithstanding an ending that amps up the drama with bizarre staging and camera movements, and a conclusion that I’m not sure was the best character choice, this is all around a substantial piece of writing from Baumbach. In his four main characters, he captures some quintessential New York personalities and does it all with subtle turns of phrase and word choices, through clothing, living space, and attitudes. Other New York filmmakers get New York, but each one fills a certain niche. Scorsese gets to the seediness. Sidney Lumet understood agencies and process. Woody Allen has cornered the market on the erudite upper middle class. Spike Lee has race relations and the feel of different neighborhoods. Baumbach gets the generational differences and the way The City can crush your dreams, the way it can make phonies out of well-intentioned people. But that’s the big stuff, the over-arching themes. On a smaller scale, While We’re Young is a fine piece of work – one that gave me more to joy and more to admire than anything in some time.

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