While We’re Young

April 18, 2015
Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts in 'While We're Young' (2014)
Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts in 'While We're Young' (2014)

We all know the story of the fan that secretly hungers to supplant his or her idol. Look no further than All About Eve (1980), one of Hollywood’s finest moments. Noah Baumbach, the son of two film critics, can be relied upon to know all about this movie, and countless others. He also seems to have ingested Woody Allen’s back catalogue of New York (Jewish) neurotics.

While We’re Young not only gives us the tale of the deceitful disciple, it is a sly comedy on the generation gap, and a meditation on the nature of truth and reality in documentary film-making. This may sound over-ambitious, but the movie is so laden with quirky details and sharp dialogue there is no time for such reflections.

The obvious comparison is with Baumbach’s 2010 film, Greenberg, which also starred Ben Stiller. That feature took an age to get started, while the characters stumbled around as if they’d lost the script. Viewers who didn’t leave within the first half hour were gradually drawn into a character study of a spiky, dysfunctional loser. Playing one of the most unsympathetic figures ever committed to film, Stiller’s performance as Greenberg was never going to win him many plaudits.

While We’re Young finds him in marginally better shape as Josh, a New York-based documentary filmmaker in his 40s who has been working for eight years on a project about power in America. He and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) surprise themselves one day by realising how stale their lives have become. The catalyst is that their best friends, Marina and Fletcher, have just had a child. Josh and Cornelia are shocked at the baby mania that descends, and feel stigmatised by their own childless state.

This theme gives rise to some of the best moments in While We’re Young, such as Cornelia sitting in on a musical session for babies and mums. For a childless woman it’s a vision of Hell, with infantile singing and audience participation. When she flees the room it feels like the narrowest escape from death in a thriller.

A new vision of life opens up when Josh meets Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a couple of 25-year-olds who attend one of his lectures on the documentary. The epitome of cool, Jamie is also an aspiring documentarian, while Darby makes icecream. Jamie expresses his admiration for Josh’s work and they agree to meet up.

Much of the movie is spent documenting Josh and Cornelia’s seduction by these representatives of a new generation who seem to be spontaneous, natural, carefree and committed, all at once. Jamie and Darby’s hipster apartment is a palace of retro chic, with manual typewriters and a wall of vinyl records. “This is just like my record collection,” says Josh, “except mine are CDs.”

Josh chastises himself for being ambitious and self-centred, while Jamie seems so generous. He admires the way their young friends live unselfconsciously in the moment, being open to new experiences. Soon Cornelia is going to hip-hop classes, while Josh is wearing a hat and riding a bike. They attend a shamanic ceremony in which they dress all in white, take mescaline, and vomit up their anxieties.

It is, of course, too good to be true. The affable Jamie takes the first opportunity to introduce himself to Cornelia’s father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a living legend among documentary-makers. It becomes apparent that Jamie’s easy-going attitude conceals an ambition more ruthless than anything Josh has ever conceived. The line between truth and fiction is crossed in life and in art, as Josh discovers Jamie is willing to manipulate any set of facts to reach a desired conclusion.

He also appears to be an old-fashioned chauvinist, who expects his wife to play second-fiddle to his career.

Baumbach indulges in a lot of easy point-scoring against the hipster generation; the glazed-eyed desperation of late-blooming parentage; and the frustrations and delusions of middle-age, when we are coming to terms with not being young, but unwilling to accept the thought of getting old. Many of us could write a dissertation on that state.

The problem is that the younger generation has time on its side, and will simply out-last its detractors. The only possible resolution is one of accommodation – learning to act one’s age, abandoning the fantasy that there is so much to learn from the young. Human nature will eventually undermine all the superficial innovations of the Zeitgeist, all those traits that make Jamie and Darby attractive to their middle-aged friends. The young live a life seemingly without consequences, while the middle-aged are tortured by the lost opportunities of the past and the dismal promise of future decline. It’s a universal tragedy that can only be played as a comedy.

While We’re Young
Written & directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Maria Dizzia, Adam Horovitz
USA, rated M, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th April, 2015.