Wednesday, April 15, 2015

WHILE WE'RE YOUNG A Funny But Narrow Take on Gen X vs. Gen Y


- WHILE WE'RE YOUNG is the latest entry in Noah Baumbach's apparent quest to chronicle all the various phases of adulthood. I've been on sort of a Baumbach high ever since 2012's seminal Frances Ha, which to me is arguably the director's finest work to date. Co-written with GenY girlfriend Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha was a funny, moving, all-too-real-feeling ode to post-collegiate angst. But While We're Young takes Baumbach squarely back to documenting his own generation, the now-in-their-40's, increasingly crotchety members of Gen X. This one treads very similar ground to 2010's Greenberg - and not only because the two Baumbach films share a star in Ben Stiller. The two films both deal heavily with generational conflict, with once-cool Gen X'ers coming to terms with the fact that they've kinda-sorta become the actual adults they vowed they'd never be. Luckily, Baumbach still has a lot of comedy to mine from these types of stories, and he's got a great cast that really embodies the types that the director seeks to skewer. The problem, of course, is that the movie takes place in such a specific universe that it falters when trying to make broad statements about Gen X vs. Gen Y. But as a character study - and as an honest look into what's going through the mind of Baumbach these days - the film is funny and entertaining.

Ben Stiller is Josh - a mid-40's filmmaker in New York who has been stumbling around for ten years trying to complete an ambitious (and thematically vague) documentary project. After a promising early career start, Josh's perfectionism and fear of failure has led him into a certifiable rut. Additionally, stubborn pride has prevented him from asking for help or advice from his father-in-law (Charles Grodin), a revered documentarian. Josh's wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) seems to have her professional life more in order. But she shares Josh's seeming disconnect with their square-ish lifestyle. Both Josh and Cornelia (who tried to have kids, but couldn't) are weary of their friends' endless talk about their children. They see their friends' lives becoming boring and predictable, and they see that despite not having kids, they are being pulled into that by osmosis. It's why both become oddly intrigued by Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) - a young twenty-something hipster couple who meet Josh at a college lecture. Jamie - an ambitious would-be filmmaker - claims to be an admirer of Josh's, and Josh is flattered to have someone who looks up to him rather than down on him. The new friendship leads Josh and Cornelia down a rabbit hole of weird, spontaneous, hipster activities - from sewer hikes to acid trips. And for a while, they feel better and more alive than they have in a long time. But are Josh and Cornelia just playing at being something they're not? Are Jamie and Darby really what they seem?

The movie smartly grapples with a lot of questions about authenticity. Josh sees himself as a perpetual struggling artist, but he lives a life of domestic comfort, and seems to have lost a lot of the artistic spark that once drove him. His never-to-be-finished movie seems more like a last connective thread to his younger days rather than a still-breathing project. It's only fitting that Josh's uber-domesticated, longtime friend Fletcher is played by the Beastie Boys' Adam Horowitz. Seeing the rebel-rap icon now graying and in cardigans is sort of emblematic of Josh's existential crisis. At the same time that he bemoans the state of his own generation, Baumbach also seems to take some satisfaction in sniping at the next one. He paints Jamie and Darby as outwardly carefree hipsters who are actually coldly and nakedly ambitious and cut-throat. Their interests seem quirky, but their goal is all about hitting it big and cashing in - and they get that in a way that Stiller's 40-something Josh still refuses to acknowledge to himself with regards to his own muddled ambitions.

Baumbach has some really fascinating observations. In a socially-networked world where anyone is just a click away, are there any more barriers between us? Josh has years of pent-up frustration that prevents him from sitting down for an honest chat with his father in law. But Jamie approaches him without a care, and pours out his hopes and dreams - networking disguised as earnest admiration. For Jamie and Darby, the world is one giant mash-up of Tumblr and LinkedIn, and the insincerity of that - the self-promotion of it all - slowly begins to turn Josh against them.

Still ... whereas Frances Ha felt like a spot-on depiction of post-college twentysomething-ness, the young hipsters of WHILE WE'RE YOUNG feel a little too much like a forty-something dude's idea of what those younger than him might be like. Again, none of this would be at issue if the movie was *only* about Jamie and Darby as specific characters. But Stiller's interactions with them are colored by numerous declarations involving the pair as emblematic of everything right and wrong about their entire generation. And that makes it feel like Baumbach can't see beyond a certain bubble of privileged white urban hipsters as being somehow representative of their entire generation (see also: Girls Season 1). A minor but telling example of that tunnel-vision: Josh's declaration that the younger generation fills their homes with all the stuff (i.e. records) that his generation tossed in the garbage. Sure, there is the odd music fanatic that collects records, but really, is an entire generation of Millennials embracing old-media? Um, no. Small example, to be sure. But a baby boomer checking this movie out would have a very skewed and not-very-accurate idea of what today's twenty-five year olds are into.

Stiller has long been the posterboy for Gen X, so it feels fitting that he is again Baumbach's star in a movie where generational themes are front and center. Stiller has the ability to pull off earnest observational comedy, but also to get broader and more physical laughs, so he excels here in a role that demands both. The good thing about Stiller - and the movie in general - is that despite Josh's high horse attitude, the joke is still almost always on him. He, ultimately, is the asshole. Watts is also really good as Cornelia. She's always really good. And sure, the effect of growing older and being uncool is somewhat diminished when you're Naomi Watts. But Watts nonetheless makes us believe in her as someone eager to reclaim her inner free-spirit. Meanwhile, Driver and Seyfried are very well cast. Driver is the quintessential hipster bro - but there's also something slightly sinister about him (which should serve him well in Star Wars) that makes you always a bit suspect of his true motives. Seyfried is a walking modern-day flower-child, a manic pixie dream girl of the highest order. She does a nice job of making Darby a character whose whimsy hides some legit pain. Oh, and Charles Grodin is fantastic as a Boomer who is altogether above the fray.

WHILE WE'RE YOUNG has some really interesting things to say - and it's a fascinating peak into Noah Baumbach's mind. It does go a bit off the rails at times, but what keeps it honest is the fact that for every moment that feels preachy, there's a counter-moment that shows how, really, we're all full of $&%# regardless of generation. And perhaps there are far worse concerns for Gen X than those pesky Millennials. There's an absurdist, hilarious coda to the movie that underlines the idea that as much as pundits and older generations malign those born in the 80's and 90's, we've yet to even really consider what kind of world those born today are arriving into - a world that their Gen X and Gen Y parents have created for them. We like to pick apart ultimately inconsequential differences between age-groups. But what if we are truly the last ones born before a seismic shift in the way people behave? Kids born in 2015 won't know a world before iPhones. That's pretty crazy. WHILE WE'RE YOUNG can laugh at itself for the relative smallness of its characters' neuroses. And that's a good thing, because at times it does seem like Baumbach can get too caught up in the minutiae of it all for his own good. But I remain curious to see where this train of thought takes him as he documents the trials of the young and the formerly young.

My Grade: B+

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