Noah Baumbach’s work has always reflected his own apparent fear of forthcoming adulthood. His characters, whether wholly autobiographical or only fractionally, are always caught in an evolutionary flux: struggling to grow up or adamantly resisting it. His debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” involves a group of close-knit college friends who refuse to take the next logical step, finding solace in their hometown back amidst each other’s company; it’s like “Diner” but with characters knowingly less content with themselves. “Margot at the Wedding” experiments with sisterly argumentation, purposefully planting itself in narrative fissures, evoking terrible past memories and proposing that you laugh at them but without hinting at moving forward as a possible resolve. The monochromatic “Frances Ha” embodies that inability to move forward, mirroring the concept in it’s structure – or lack thereof – in a stop-and-start, cyclical fashion, glazed in melancholy but examining the beauty in natural, everyday moments. And Baumbach’s opus, “The Squid and the Whale,” a ruthless satire about a family trudging through a divorce, examines the psychological complications that come when a household is torn at the seams. Exceptionally naturalistic and surprisingly cathartic, this 2004 drama might also be the filmmaker’s most optimistic film (though by the slimmest of margins) as it proposes that in our growth we can shed the flaws of our parents, even if we’ll come to possess different ones of our own. Still, “Squid” is expressively fearful of growth, mainly because its protagonists are tossed into maturity before they’re ready for it. Therefore the question arises, what does Baumbach have to say now that he has reached the point in his life that he feared the most? Now 45, is Noah Baumbach at odds with his age, or has he embraced the mid-life crisis free?
As expected with Baumbach, the mid-life is no less tumultuous than youth, as his newest film, “While We’re Young,” gazes upon the liberty of youth with reverence through the eyes of two forty-somethings who consider themselves children only pretending to be adults. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a child-less couple in a state of denial about their adulthood. The former is a documentarian applauded by niche obscurists – his debut feature is currently an eBay-only diamond in the rough – failing to organize his way too ambitious follow-up (“it’s about America!”…or something like that) with a faithful editor who is politely close to walking away from the film. His wife, meanwhile, is a modestly successful film producer, though she’s not producing Josh’s film. He’s obviously a bit too self-righteous, but there’s a familial chip on his shoulder as well: Cornelia is the daughter of a Maysles-like documentary legend, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), whom Josh adores and resents in equal measure. And while there’s intrinsic friction in their relationship because of this, Josh and Cornelia choose to ignore it out loud, conversing with each other about the stability of their marriage and their consensual willingness to remain without child (because freedom…or something like that). They attempt to justify their decision based on the current state of their close friends (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, a.k.a Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys) who have a newborn who rightfully consumes their lives. Still, there’s a spark in need of relighting, and when Josh and Cornelia suddenly encounter two caution-free twenty-somethings, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), their energy immediately rejuvenates the older main characters
Given the incredible talent involved, it’s easy to see how hilarity could ensue, and it does; this is Baumbach’s funniest film a mile. Baumbach’s script is effortlessly funny, and the actors rip into it with glee, especially Stiller, Driver and Horovitz. I feel shamefully embarrassed that I was not examining Horovitz with more scrutiny being a Beastie Boys fan, but he’s phenomenal comic support, so at ease with the material that it’s less “Ad-Rock is acting” and more “this Horovitz guy is pretty great!” He’s only in a handful of scenes, but he gets some strong laughs. But Baumbach gets the most mileage out of Stiller and Driver, the latter blowing up in a huge way, continuing on a staircase of rising popularity that almost threatens to capsize when “Star Wars: Episode VII” hits theaters this Christmas. Like on “Girls,” Driver makes good on his resounding presence, his excitable baritone voice, and his ability to take the corniest of lines and make them zingers. “Girls” thrives on the plight of the millennial, and Driver’s done amazing work since the pilot being the consciously self-involved voice of reason to his female egoists. Here, Driver almost flips that, flamboyantly parading the hipster stereotype – housing a collection of VHS tapes, forbidding the use of Siri to answer a trivia tidbit that nobody can remember, exuberantly celebrating his wife’s homemade artisanal ice cream – with a long-term goal to become a documentarian like Josh, whom he fawns over like an indie auteur that nobody knows about yet.
And as Josh, Stiller is given not only the most fitting role for his sensibilities, but he delivers his best performance in quite some time. At almost fifty, there’s no hiding Stiller’s visible middle age, but wondrously the actor hasn’t been shy about hitting that mark. His last two directorial efforts, “Tropic Thunder” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” both confronted self-potential in turmoil, one with great satire and the other with dreamlike wonder, but Baumbach’s given Stiller the opportunity to dutifully act his age, and by doing so Stiller proves why he’s still such a comic juggernaut. The guy is incredibly talented and he walks away from “While We’re Young” almost entirely rejuvenated as a centered funny man, having explored a dynamic role with purpose. I’ve always been a big fan of Stiller’s and there have been cringing moments in his recent work where he’s far outgrown the schtick he built his fame on (you unfortunately can’t erase “Little Fockers”), but the greatest skill a comedy actor can exude is knowing when to finally act your age, and given the intended thematic drive of “While We’re Young,” it gives Stiller the opportunity to do that in spades.
On the female end, “While We’re Young” is not as gratifying. Naomi Watts, who I also adore, is fine as Cornelia, but doesn’t feel as central as Stiller’s Josh, which is unfortunate given Baumbach’s mission, as he stated during a post-screening Q&A at the Brattle Theater in Boston, to make a movie about a well-into-it marriage. The focus feels heavily tipped toward Josh which leaves Watts with a few specific beats to play before she folds into the periphery in the final act. Still, that’s way more than Seyfried gets to do. Almost from the get-go, the actress is left out to dry. She idles around as if waiting for a purpose that she knows if never coming. The most notable thing she does is attend a hip-hop dance class with Cornelia, but the gag comes from Cornelia’s reaction when the class begins and Seyfried jumps into the hard-hitting choreography without any hesitation. Basically, Seyfried gets the set-up and Watts gets the punch line. The actress’ slighting is a drawback because it’s so uncomfortably obvious, and when she finally becomes somewhat necessary, it’s part of this bizarre reveal that puts the movie in a kind of course correction.
Yes, that’s right, a reveal, with a horror movie-like flashback montage to boot. I won’t go into the specifics, but I will say that the movie kind of abandons its thematic purpose: To ponder the conventions of middle age with an acute observation of the generational gap. All of sudden, apropos of very little, it discards all of its primary demographic concerns and becomes an exposé on the ethics of documentary filmmaking. The entire climax is situated around an event banquet where Josh finds himself flabbergasted and at odds with his family and friends about the merits of authenticity when it turns out that nobody exactly cares about this wholesome, antiquated desire. The jump in direction feels so unwarranted and a bizarre flipswitch for Baumbach, who seems far more troubled with plot machinations than ever before. It’s such a bracing rerouting that I found myself immediately detached, confused by where the movie was now headed, and beyond deflated by the ending. It’s a shame because for quite awhile this was the Noah Baumbach movie that I was enjoying more than ever.
This is where I admit that I am not a Noah Baumbach fan. Outside of “The Squid and the Whale,” which I’m also not entirely enamored by, I’ve never liked any of the Baumbach films that I’ve seen. I deride “Margot at the Wedding,” I can’t stand “Frances Ha,” I steered clear of “Greenberg” (or I wanted to), and of the two films that he’s co-written with Wes Anderson, the earlier picture, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” is my least favorite Anderson film. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that I don’t dig about his films; maybe it’s their deliberately messy narratives, or their “I’m an indie movie” feel. Maybe it’s his spiteful characters or aimless intentions. He’s committed and at times experimental, and he is gifted at capturing inarguable naturalism on screen, I’ll give him all that, but I always find myself just generally unconcerned and uninvolved. “While We’re Young” showed amazing promise of being something different. I won’t disagree that this is Baumbach’s most mainstream movie by far – totally accessible by all types of audiences, sharp humor with a ton of jokes, high-profile cast, all of that – but for a skeptical viewer like myself, a mainstream distillation of Baumbach is hardly a bad thing. I laughed a lot during this movie, I laughed really, really hard, and I think the first half of the film is definitely of the better things I’ve seen so far this year. But the stark, uneven transition it makes in it’s concluding half is so confounding, it seems to suck all the humor out of the film. However, this choice isn’t a problem specific to Baumbach as an individual writer or filmmaker; it’s a mainstream comedy problem.
This is what baffles me. Baumbach is a pretty uncompromising filmmaker, but “While We’re Young” is a movie that feels compromised, and the narrative choices are at the expense of brilliant first half. The movie concludes on such an ill footing and it weirdly bothered me long after I left the theater. Just to see a comedy get so stern like that almost instantly and for such unmotivated reasons. Why did it become so obsessive with the documentary filmmaking process (an ironically timely subject given the prevalence of HBO’s “The Jinx” and the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour”)? This makes it feel like a movie that was written in two entirely different settings and by two very different people. Baumbach mentioned how he usually has no idea where his movies are going when he begins writing them and things evolve as the writing process goes along. That’s fine if you’re making something like “Frances Ha” which meanders about without an iota of immediacy from start to finish, but a film like this, that is supposedly about a marriage in need of some fuel and an infectious life force that comes in the form of two funky youngers, doesn’t lend itself to such narrative haphazardness. This is “While We’re Young’s” downfall, and it’s not that it’s necessarily Baumbach’s worst movie or another movie of Baumbach’s that I especially don’t like, it doesn’t even feel like Baumbach by the time it’s over. It’s just a pretty good comedy that puts plot before it’s characters.
When I think of Noah Baumbach, for better or for worse, I think of all his main characters sitting in a room and talking, then yelling, then talking, then doing something drastically upsetting but sarcastically funny, and then repeat. Feelings are hurt, truths are explored, and people may or may not change. That’s “The Squid and the Whale,” that’s “Margot at the Wedding,” and that’s “Frances Ha,” and I’m sure that’s what “Mistress America,” his already completed next film, will be as well. “While We’re Young” is not that kind of movie. It’s a broad departure that, at first, is for the better, but ultimately foregoes even a personal stamp. It marginalizes half of its talented cast, it disregards its main focus, and it casually separates itself from any Baumbach-ian qualifiers. It’s half of a very, very funny and insightful film, but if Baumbach still, in the end, intends to revere the youth, then “While We’re Young” does answer my question from the start: At 45, Baumbach has embraced the previously fearful age, so much so that he may not only fear youth, but he has become a scatterbrained curmudgeon to boot.
Review by Mike Murphy
“While We’re Young” is now playing in theaters nationwide.