The Kids Are Coming Up from Behind: While We’re Young

03/25/2015 8:36 AM |
photo courtesy of A24

While We’re Young
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Opens March 27

It might be the quintessential Noah Baumbach character: somebody deathly afraid of hanging around too long, and existing in an embittered, yet almost comically eloquent, state of regret and discontent. Baumbach’s films catch these hapless creatures at moments of reckoning, when their selective self-consciousness is only magnifying the distance between where they are and where they think they should be: the liberal-arts graduates of Kicking and Screaming lingering through summer into the beginning of another college year; Greenberg, the guy who stuck to his indie-band credo and then went nowhere right into 40; and the happily roommated and perpetually apprenticing dancer of Frances Ha. While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller as a filmmaker endlessly tinkering with a bloated unfinished documentary and wondering, with his wife (Naomi Watts), whether the “really not nervous” Brooklyn youngsters they befriend might have figured it out.

In Baumbach, the tendency to fear being lapped by life is just as closely connected to anxieties over achievement (rather than, say, money or class or ethnic difference) as it is to romantic desperation. The mindset has nearly become a writerly convention, a fiercely productive neurosis for throwing out observations, and it’s fascinating that While We’re Young begins with Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) trying to soothe their friends’ baby with a fairy tale they can’t remember—scrambling, in other words, not to lose their audience. When the baby’s parents return to the apartment, a volley of platitudes about capitulating to parenthood follow (“We’re just animals!”), but Baumbach swiftly turns his wit back on Josh and Cornelia back home, where they cherish their little-exploited freedoms as a childless couple. The film’s portrait of their new, chill friends—Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried as Williamsburgers Jamie and Darby—is likewise complicated by the fact that Jamie’s a kiss-up striver who probably knew that Cornelia’s father is documentary godfather Leslie Breitbart (a masterful Charles Grodin).

Josh and Cornelia rapidly go through the life cycle of embracing the habits (and hats and hip-hop classes) of their younger counterparts, with Baumbach efficiently poking fun at reflexive retro leisure pursuits, or rather at what the older folk notice about these strange and wondrous lifestyles. (Actually, one of my bigger laughs came not from the film but an audience member: When Jamie’s documentary subject turned out to be played by the ubiquitous Brady Corbet, some critic burst out uncontrollably with “Goddamn it!”) Taken at face value, While We’re Young is quite effective at expressing that what-next feeling of encroaching middle age, and the realization that the next generation is not exactly primed to be impressed by its predecessors, with the churn getting more rapid with each year. But in the milieu of a comfortable creative class—only Josh’s unpaid editor seems to worry about where the money will come from—isn’t this also equally a story of creative anxiety as it is about aging?

Baumbach’s self-proclaimed comedy of a marriage diverging and reconnecting is also a dramatization of a skilled screenwriter’s perpetual warring impulses between cynicism and the well-turned perceptive one-liner. Josh may have a clear conscience on his side with his six-hour-plus essay-doc treatise “about America,” but nobody wants to watch it, and he can’t finish it; concerning another filmmaker in the story, we hear the judgment that rings through the ages of creative endeavor: “I think he’s an asshole… but the movie’s pretty good.” No one owns experience exclusively in While We’re Young, and ultimately the attractions of talent wins out; growing up, such as it is, means accepting the beauty of the impurity inherent in art and life.