With While We’re Young Noah Baumbach hits you with everything and the kitschen sink in this incisive, funny but often distractingly clichéd comedy about the passage of time and the illusion of youth.
Middle-Aged Malaiseby Dave O'Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Exquisitely awkward, sharply comical and painfully incisive – Noah Baumbach’s body of work highlights the Brooklynite’s consummate ease for the piercingly merciless exposure of our faults and failings. As a writer, self-acceptance is one of the many thematic ribbons loosely bolstering films that include The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg and Frances Ha. Baumbach’s latest is something of a mixed bag; the dialogue is customarily whip-smart and funny, but the film itself comprising of independent sensibilities and mainstream ambition falls between two stools – failing to excel on any front. Despite the ‘mumblecore’ reputation that precedes him, Baumbach has said he always wants his films to reach the widest audience, but the obvious and clichéd physical comedy feels out of kilter with the toe-stubbing pangs of his observational and neurotic brand of dramedy. In addition, there’s also a surprising gender imbalance in terms of narrative which is disappointing for a director so attuned to writing female characters.
Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) Srebnick are a happily married, middle-aged and middle-class New York couple. While all of their closest peers are having children and becoming further entrenched in family life, Josh and Cornelia are satisfied with the freedom and spontaneity of their lives. When they are suddenly introduced to free-spirited twenty-something’s Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), Josh and Cornelia are bewitched by the promise and excitement of youth. Abandoning their middle-aged friends, the symbiotic relationship between the couples brings vigour and fun to Josh and Cornelia’s marriage, but this illusion of youth yields unexpected complications.
If the caravan of drifters and dreamers of Noah Baumbach’s previous outings were to lay down their fears, doubts and disappointments to reunite in one film, they’d be right at home in While We’re Young. Baumbach’s latest ‘joint’ feels like the Walt Berkmans, Roger Greenbergs and Frances Has have finally put down roots and set up shop. Ben Stiller’s Josh is a self-absorbed 40-something man who must come to terms with the fact that his moment in life has passed him by. Josh encompasses the disillusioned, insecure and often insufferable characters that Baumbach somehow make love to hate and hate to love. Josh and Cornelia’s inability to have children perpetuates the illusion of freedom that they believe sets them apart from their child-encumbered peers. The irony of this is that their acceptance of life as-is is anything but freedom, instead restrained by the humdrum of everyday life. In Jamie and Darby, they open a door to their past, an escape to the melancholy of youth. The kitsch and kooky world of pet chickens, retro headwear and rollerblading is the easiest route through the crossroads they find themselves at.
The disconnect between Generation X and Y is humorously and intentionally exaggerated through Adam Driver’s ludicrously whackbat Jamie. His reductive attitude to the older generation coupled with greetings like “What’s the rumpus, shredmix?” and grating, cutesy nicknames like “Joshy”, ensures you can’t help but feel infuriated and a little fascinated by him. To Jamie, his friendship with Josh is like an excursion, an opportunity to mine the experience of age like a predatory hipster hyena. He picks the parts of Josh’s life that he finds self-serving like an à la carte menu, indifferent to the impact of his emotionally vacuous motives. Driver’s energy is infectious and while you never truly see a heart in this Machiavellian minor, he’s endlessly enjoyable to watch.
In terms of scripting, Baumbach’s dialogue is humorous and cutting, and While We’re Young is more ambitious in terms of narrative development than Frances Ha. It’s the painfully obvious “Look at the old guy/girl hip-hop/rollerblade/cycle” etc. comedy in the film that feels too easy, cheap laughs for a writer whose weapon of choice is dialogue. Furthermore, despite the undoubted nous of Baumbach in shaping complex characters, Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried pull the short straws in terms of the narrative spoils. Watts is the very definition of supporting actor to Stiller’s unappealing Josh. It’s a real shame that a subplot that hints at the trauma of miscarriage is the extent of her character’s complexity. The same can be said for the normally captivating Seyfried, who at one point endearingly mumbles “I feel like there are people that drop things less than me” – it’s just unfortunate that this line accurately typifies the dearth of depth in a role that is all kook over character.
Fans of Ben Stiller will revel in the awkward human schtick he’s synonymous for, but with the knack Baumbach has for writing nuanced characters that you hate to love, this is a way off the richness of The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha or even the under-appreciated Greenberg. And that’s fine, this is a different film, it just feels like Baumbach is caught between the two stools of independent and mainstream comedy, and in doing so, there’s an erosion of the subtlety and nuance that makes him special as a filmmaker. Adam Driver is excellent, and Charles Grodin is a wonderful addition to a cast of characters that you care nothing about. There are some really interesting takeaways from While We’re Young, most intriguing of which is who we are and how we change with the inevitable passage of time. Baumbach’s message seems to be that change is inevitable, and healthy, and enlightening – a welcome sliver of positivity in the maelstrom of middle-aged angst.
While We’re Young is released on 3rd April 2015 in the UK