Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried
Director: Noah Baumbach
Rating: 3 stars
Noah Baumbach follows his 2012 success, Frances Ha, with While We’re Young, a film about a middle-aged, childless couple coming to terms with the inevitability of age, sorrow, failure and arthritis. Like other Baumbach titles — his debut, Kicking and Screaming (1995), The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Frances Ha itself — the present film builds much of its existence around the difficulty inherent in growing older, or in passing from one phase of life to another.
Josh has been stuck with a single, incomplete film (his magnum opus and the symbol of his life) for a decade now. He lives in New York with his wife, Cornelia. All her friends have become mothers and force her to hang out in parenting classes — it makes her sadder and reminds her of her own failed pregnancies. They meet Jamie and Dalby, a much younger couple who exchange loving glances, sing songs loudly while driving, attend hip-hop dance classes and wear hipster hats. This makes the couple face a serious crisis of identity: they begin to mimic their younger counterparts, desperate to cling on to their own fading youth. This, until Jamie attains immediate and in Josh’s eyes, unearned success as a filmmaker — then, bitterness, ego and jealousy.
Baumbach emphasises on how rough the process of ageing will be: there will be generational conflict; a realignment of personal attitudes or tastes and even more significantly, a shift in the manner the world around an individual will perceive him or her. In the face of all of this, Baumbach’s films will advocate for greater understanding, for empathy, and almost always, for the young. In his films, the young are allowed to trip over, pick themselves back up, repeat — it is the responsibility of those who surround them to embrace their indecision and their confusion. While others produce “coming-of-age” stories, Baumbach’s films are stories about “coming-to-terms”; people make mistakes, act stupid, but it’s not because they are bad, but as Josh says to Cornelia, “they’re young”.
Baumbach adopts an interesting strategy to present this thesis. Josh is for three-fourths of the film, the film’s main subject. He is presented as an admirable figure: a man who harps on about integrity and authenticity, and in a pitch to the producer, discusses abstract concepts of power, politics and money. It is often too easy for films about filmmakers to fall into a self-reflective indulgence that romanticises the process of filmmaking itself, but Baumbach negotiates this cleverly. We discover that all of Josh’s profound purism is merely a ruse, an excuse that allows him to escape the toughest responsibilities of his life — whether it is his marriage, or his unfinished film. In the final fourth of the film, Josh is made accountable for his contempt of Jamie — he must not merely learn to deal with it, but also accept that the latter’s blind ambition is a natural yield of being independent and young.
While Adam Driver plays Jamie, the young blowhard well enough, Josh needed an actor who can infuse his being with cruelty, envy and contempt but then render these vices entirely human.
Unfortunately, Ben Stiller plays him with a cocksureness that strips away the confusion his character is mired in and makes him appear like a glorious party-pooper, nothing else.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society