Saturday 8 February 2020

From the archive: "While We're Young"

Noah Baumbach’s latest trifle looks to have been inspired by the demographic split occasioned by his earlier Frances Ha. That film’s viewers generally fell into two camps: those for whom its fairytale skylarking hit a hipster sweet spot, and those (invariably older) viewers for whom such ultra-boho New York quirkiness proved altogether too cool for school. Having united these two quadrants in auditoriums, perhaps the writer-director wondered: what if you threw them together in a movie? What sparks, comic and dramatic, would result?

In While We’re Young, the two factions are embodied by a diverse pair of couples. As notional grown-ups, we have Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), struggling documentarist and daughter of documentary royalty respectively: fortysomething, childless, and – for all the talk about the freedom this gives them to jet off to Paris at the drop of a hat – heading into sexless middle age.

The hipster camp is represented by Jamie and Darby, 25 years young, already married, and keenly collecting, on vinyl and VHS, all the cultural artefacts beloved of the older pair. Darby (Amanda Seyfried) is spacey and makes ice cream for something approximating a living; Jamie, a would-be filmmaker, is – as always – Adam Driver, which is to say quite unlike any other creature on this planet.

Baumbach allows us to spot the appeal. Unlike their fusty elders, these two are open to everything from walking the subway tracks to the potentially deadlier music of REO Speedwagon; they remind Josh and Cornelia of what it was to be relatively unburdened by responsibility. Yet the film knows there’s only so much hat-wearing and vomiting a 44-year-old with dodgy knees can get away with before it appears undignified; furthermore, that there are only so many cheques Josh can pick up before he reverts to grumpy, grousing type.

As a running gag about Facebook establishes, Baumbach is engaged in a form of social anthropology: to an extent, he’s interested in how we all now network, which generates amusing-clever asides on mobile phone etiquette and why invites to parties thrown by friends with kids can be less appealing than those extended by friends without.

For at least an hour of its running time, While We’re Young is alive with the absurdities and tensions of an age when there are so many ways to prevent oneself ageing in the conventionally approved manner: I found it funny, wise and true up until the point where Baumbach started bashing me over the head with the notion the only options for creative New Yorkers of a certain age are make a baby or make a movie.

Cornelia and Darby, expressing no real interest in either, are promptly packed off to the thrift store, and the film starts to get mired in a matter of filmmaking ethics that proves far less illuminating or revealing than that which has preceded it; the power struggle that ensues between Josh, Jamie and Josh’s father-in-law (Charles Grodin) is but a more archly eloquent expression of the Oedipal struggles that have become so clichéd in mainstream cinema.

As though to strengthen his own argument about the advantages of acting one’s age, Baumbach closes the film down, reducing the playing field by half and forcing everybody into the centre ground: cosy scenes of (mostly male) chatter in which comedy takes second place to social positioning. Such granola cinema pales in comparison to those blithely lovely scenes in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up that drew parallels between the Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd characters while making jokes and broader points about life beyond the entertainment bubble.

The denouement feels like the tiniest act of self-correction: that of an ageing filmmaker – Josh, as Baumbach – throwing his hands up at today’s yoof and reclaiming his generation’s methods as more humane and rational than anybody else’s. The result produces almost exactly the same outcome as Frances Ha, which will be recommendation enough for some: another solipsistic indie likely to offer diminishing returns the further away one is from major metropolitan areas, and the hang-ups Baumbach makes mildly merry with here.

(MovieMail, April 2015)

While We're Young screens on BBC2 at 11.55pm tonight.

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