What's old is new. Or so believes the wild hipster couple Jaime and Darby (played to narcissistic perfection by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfriend), who live by this adage almost preternaturally in Noah Baumbach's While We're Young. VHS, vinyl and vintage: These are some of their favorite things. Married 40-something's Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts)—who grew up with those relics of technology and have long since moved on to iPads and smart phones—are shocked to experience a level of rejuvenation by simply sharing the same space as their younger, "cooler" counterparts.
But this sudden burst of excitement is just one of many emotional ruses at the center of Baumbach's deceptively acidic New York City comedy, which slyly deals with the universal presence of doubt in our information age. Eventually, complex feelings of insecurity and resentment start to fester, specifically in Josh, giving While We're Young a dark central core that continuously lambastes the absurdity of generational jealousy.
Fittingly, the film begins by quoting a particularly relevant scene from Ibsen's The Master Builder that foreshadows this tension, then continues to present uncomfortable situations where young and old attempt to find a fragile balance of perspective.
The overlap in the characters' professions becomes pivotal to this motif. Josh has been struggling to finish his second documentary for nearly a decade, while Cornelia's talents as a film producer have mostly been laid to waste after spending years working with her father, the legendary non-fiction auteur Leslie Briebart (Charles Grodin). Jaime's a shapeless new artist eager to make a documentary about deconstructing the artificiality of social media, while Darby's passions often become obscured by her husband's charming bombast.
As a human mosaic of our self-obsessed 21st century, While We're Young explores how each character's actions feed into an overall infatuation with the individual. Baumbach's cagey script often exposes this pattern, beginning with Josh's self-righteous questioning of Jaime's obviously compromised motives as a filmmaker. He stands on moral high ground, believing that documentary filmmaking should equal truth, conveniently ignoring his own culpability in feeding Jaime's ego. Stiller's performance embodies this combination of repulsion and panic in each desperate glance and verbose outburst.
Baumbach has made a career of skewering intellectual superiority (see his The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding). Yet, While We're Young frames the material in a much more playful way, tactically destroying the assumption that documentary images are automatically distilling some kind of dependable reality without descending into full-blown satire. It's essentially a fictional comedy about non-fiction artists who tell themselves fiction on a daily basis. Within this structure, each character will have the destructive effects of their rote self-seriousness displayed across the frame.
Coming on the heels of Frances Ha, Baumbach's truly delightful nymph of a movie that flashes signs of hope at every turn, While We're Young's slightly more pessimistic view suggests Baumbach could be heading back to Greenberg-territory (his 2010 dark comedy that also starred Stiller). That's not the case, though, considering how thoroughly While We're Young, which opens Friday, April 3, generously assesses the desperation of Josh's moral dilemma. During a third-act scene set at a retrospective celebration for Leslie's career, Josh tries to upstage Jaime's subterfuge by making a scene in front of the city's elite.
Instead of giving Stiller's character the satisfaction of momentary (and spiteful) victory, the film brutally humbles him, affording an opportunity for reflection.
In the end, this decision makes all the difference. Looking inward at one's own accountability becomes the film's key lesson. Josh and Cornelia have enough life experience to admit when they've gone astray. It's less clear if the take-first generation represented by Jaime and Darby will ever attain the same clarity.
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