Friday, April 10, 2015

While We're Young: Sly social commentary

While We're Young (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang

Getting older is difficult enough, in terms of physical and emotional challenges, without having to worry about the need to remain “relevant.”

In the aftermath of a truly silly consciousness-raising experience, Josh (Ben Stiller) and
Cornelia (Naomi Watts) attempt to make sense of the previous evening, to determine
whether any useful insight might have been achieved. Sadly, they've a ways to go before
any genuinely helpful epiphanies.
Perversely, though, that issue has become more challenging in our modern world, with cultural and technological imperatives changing not by the decade, not even by the year, but at times — seemingly — by the month. More than ever before, it feels like only agile young minds have a hope of keeping up.

But is “keeping up” really that important?

Intellectual obsolescence is the core issue of Noah Baumbach’s newest character study, but the writer/director actually has much more on his mind. Part comedy, part drama and all biting social commentary, While We’re Young is a perceptive take on 21st century fortysomethings who worry that life is passing them by ... or, worse yet, long ago left town on the last bus.

Mid-life crises are nothing new, of course; every generation crosses this more-or-less halfway point with varying degrees of the same angst. But Hollywood didn’t really discover the genre until 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, and most of the topic’s classics are more recent: 1973’s Save the Tiger, 1979’s Manhattan, 1999’s American Beauty and 2004’s Sideways come quickly to mind.

While We’re Young definitely belongs in their company. Baumbach has an unerring ear for troubled interpersonal dynamics, dating back to his Oscar-nominated script for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. That said, some of his subsequent films — however insightful — spent too much time with unpalatable or downright mean-spirited characters; it’s difficult to embrace any message when delivered by, say, the misanthropic title character in Greenberg.

But Baumbach’s approach has been gentler of late, starting with the forlorn misfit played so winningly by Greta Gerwig, in 2012’s Frances Ha. Maybe it’s because Baumbach is gaining maturity not merely as a filmmaker, but also as a person; it can’t be accidental that he’s the same age as his protagonists in While We’re Young, definitely his kindest — and therefore more approachable — film to date.

We meet Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) as they nervously try to interact with a newborn: not theirs, as we quickly discover, but the first child of best friends Fletcher and Marina (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia). As displayed so expressively by Watts — Cornelia tries, but doesn’t quite succeed, to hide her agitation — this moment is a crisis, and not merely because it revives painful memories of their own failed attempts to have children.

No, it’s a crossroads. Just as marriage leaves still-single friends feeling isolated, new parents with kids instantaneously join yet another social clique that simply doesn’t allow for childless members ... no matter how polite the lip-service.

Just like that, Josh and Cornelia feel left out.

This has been building for awhile. They’ve settled into a comfortable rut that shuns spontaneity; they go to bed early each night; they take each other for granted. Life has ... lost its zest. Or so they fear, during hilariously self-defensive conversations laden with twitchy rationalization.

Let it be acknowledged, by the way, that Baumbach deserves his reputation as a next-gen Woody Allen. It’s not merely that Josh, Cornelia and their “troubles” feel much like one of Allen’s angst-y relationship sagas; they also clearly live in one of the “creative class” neighborhoods in Allen’s vision of New York City. Not a bad thing, mind you, but a very definite style: one that probably won’t play as well in the American heartland, as it does on both coasts.


Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Josh is naturally insecure. He burst on the indie cinema scene years earlier, with a brilliant documentary: a career he embraced by following in the footsteps of his idol, veteran documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin, at his crusty, caustic best) ... who also happens to be Cornelia’s father. She also works in the biz, as an indie producer.

Marrying Cornelia was a genuine act of mutual love and devotion, but the aftermath has left Josh fearing that he’ll never match his early success, and — worse yet — forever remain in his father-in-law’s shadow. Which likely explains why he has struggled with his current film for 10 years: a period so long that his recent on-camera interview segments don’t match earlier shoots, because he has changed too much during the intervening decade.

Baumbach has plenty of fun poking at this ostentatiously oblique subset of documentaries; Josh’s new film clearly is obtuse and utterly unwatchable ... not that he’d ever admit as much.

At low ebb, plagued by self-doubt and newfound concerns about legacy, Josh is “rescued” by a chance encounter with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a vibrant young couple who know and admire his early work. Josh is flattered; he introduces them to Cornelia, and they’re both captivated by the fun, flirty, free-spirited nature of these twentysomethings.

Best of all, they don’t seem to be age-ist; they’re simply ... well ... sincerely friendly.

Jamie and Darby surround themselves with the cultural “artifacts” more appropriate to the previous generation. They read books, not screens; they have a turntable and a wall of LPs; when they want to watch a movie, they dig through stacks of VHS tapes. By droll contrast, Josh and Cornelia are all about smart phones and other high-tech amenities.

Jamie and Darby seem to be the people that Josh and Cornelia remember being, and would like to be again; and since the younger couple is eagerly inclusive, why not?

The resulting storyline moves in mischievous, even mildly unsettling directions, initially circling and soon settling on Baumbach’s actual message: to thine own self be true. Getting there involves plenty of discomfort, including some scenes that prompt squirms of embarrassed agony. Navigating treacherous social waters is never pretty, and Baumbach is merciless.

Don’t get scared; other sequences are laugh-out-loud hilarious, and Baumbach never puts his characters through more than they can endure. And not everything is about relationships; the script also includes some astute zingers about aging. My favorite, by far, is an otherwise routine doctor’s visit that surprises Josh with a diagnosis of arthritis.

“You mean ... arthritis arthritis?” he asks, incredulously.

“Well, I usually only say it once,” replies the doctor, straight-faced, without the slightest effort at humor. Which, of course, makes the scene even funnier.

Stiller is right at home in this part, but — happily — he minimizes the tics and quirks that have for years typified often obnoxious “Ben Stiller roles.” Instead, he displays a sweet, mildly confused and genuinely sympathetic side that anybody over 40 will recognize immediately ... particularly with Josh’s insistence that his values, his understanding of the universe, still matters.

Watts’ performance is subtler, and therefore more real-world. We grieve for Cornelia’s despair regarding children, and understand that this is what propels her headlong plunge into the carefree lifestyle represented by Jamie and Darby; it’s a way of forgetting.

Driver, working constantly and maturing rapidly as an actor, is perfect as the casual, cheerful, comradely Jamie. Driver is all smiles and laid-back charm, and yet there’s ... well, something about Jamie. Something a bit too calculating. Odd, for instance, that he never offers to pick up the check, instead banking on Josh’s instinctive generosity.

Darby is harder to read, although that isn’t Seyfried’s fault. Baumbach’s script doesn’t pay as much attention to her, which is frustrating; as this narrative moves into its third act, it becomes important to know what’s going through Darby’s head, and we never really get that answer.

Jamie, on the other hand, we get to know perfectly.

Baumbach’s ultimate take-away message, sharply and subtly delivered, is that we’re all poseurs of a sort: separated not so much by social variations in an ever-evolving world, but more so simply by age. Josh is — let’s face it — something of a self-involved jerk, albeit one who wishes to better himself. His father-in-law, Leslie, is an entirely different sort of self-involved jerk: one who, with the satisfaction of advanced years, is wholly comfortable with the label, perhaps having convinced himself that it isn’t even jerk-dom.

People change. More important, definitions change. Acceptable behavior changes. The latter is the hardest to endure, because personal integrity is essential to one’s soul; part of wisdom, then, might be the painful recognition that ethics, far from fixed, “float” all the time. (More’s the pity.)

Plenty to contemplate, all told. Not bad for an essentially light-hearted character romp.

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