Noah Baumbach’s new film by and large carries forth the good feelings evident in 2012’s Frances Ha. An intelligent and keen observer of human foibles and follies (keen to the point of keening, often), Mr. Baumbach started his career strongly, with the fairly gentle and modestly ambitious portrait of post-collegiate angst, Kicking and Screaming. That film reminded me of the work of Whit Stillman, the great and under-appreciated chronicler of young white privilege, partly due to the presence of Chris Eigeman, and partly due to the similarly sympathetic yet sharp portraits of bourgeois young adults presented in both films (although Mr. Stillman’s bourgeois are definitely more haute than Baumbach’s). I missed Mr. Jealousy, Baumbach’s stab at mainstream relevance, but adored his following film, 1997’s Highball, a somewhat loose and grungy Gen-X screwball comedy that for reasons I cannot fathom he has disowned. Yes, Mr. Baumbach was sitting high on my brow in those days… and then, after a too long break of seven years, he returned with two “dramedies” that were blood curdling exercises in misanthropy and ugliness. The Squid and the Whale had little sympathy for its characters, and Mr. Baumbach’s grim enjoyment of dragging the audience along on the Bataan death march that was his awkward adolescence was too palpable. One got the distinct impression that for him, pain equals truth – or rather, that his characters were authentic because they were so awful and unpleasant. Perhaps not knowing where to go after that, it must be admitted, almost universally hailed tour de force of embarrassment and frowns, Baumbach made a film with a similar form (that is, “confessional”) but without the underlying salve of autobiography. Margot at the Wedding plays like Bergman by way of Todd Solondz if both had been kidnapped, blinded, locked in a basement, and forced to write a script for Henry Jaglom. The characters in that film come in two varieties – intelligent and incredibly awful, or unintelligent (i.e. “normal folks”) but incredibly ineffectual and annoying. The behavior of Margot makes Hitler seem misunderstood and jolly in comparison. Shrill, egomaniacal, mean, static, without remorse or pity, she really is the worst person ever to visit Long Island. (I rest my case). Baumbach revels in the ugliness of the whole situation, his “honesty” communicating that families are nothing more than sewers into which unwilling participants are slung from time to time, forced into a battle royale of painful revelation and one-upsmanship. Having finally recovered from this gleeful nightmare by locking myself away with naught but Peepshow for the next month, I skipped Greenberg, figuring it would be more of the same – if I could barely abide Nicole Kidman as a self-lacerating (and everyone else lacerating) megalomaniac, Ben Stiller would put me over the top, and I’d be watching Rocky II on a loop for the rest of my days. Okay, I’m thankfully winding up my sad tale of Mr. Baumbach’s effect on my psyche, as Frances Ha brought into N.B.’s misanthropic little world the spunky, klutzy, yes, annoying in her own way but also life-loving and un-ironic presence of Greta Gerwig. With her on board as co-writer and star, Baumbach finally brushed that chip the size of a large, festering wedge of Stilton off his shoulder, got back in touch with his ’90’s self, and delivered his best film in 15 years. A bit slight, perhaps, but who needs seriousness if it comes in the form of concrete getting poured down your throat? All of which is to say, I had mixed feelings about While We’re Young when I saw the trailer. It looked pretentious and overly-intellectual, a return to “form,” yet it also looked somewhat silly and self-effacing, maybe a good time. It is, after all, about a middle-aged grump who gets a new lease on life by meeting some hopeful youths, right? Well, actually, no. It is more self-righteous than that, as the middle-aged grump turns out to be a minor version of the dreaded “last angry man,” and the youths turn out to be narcissists at best, and outright frauds at worst. And yet… the film is genuinely funny, and reveals some truths about getting older and figuring out what matters in life.
The synopsis is uncomplicated. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a 40-something couple, Josh and Cornelia, who are beset by a midlife crisis of sorts, brought on by the recognition of their own professional mediocrity (he is a struggling documentarian, she is… the daughter of a documentarian) and the realization that they have no baby ballast to help them through this stormy period, as many of their friends do. After giving a bland lecture at a local college, Josh is set upon by two young hipsters from the audience, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who seem to be fans of his work. Flattered, he and Cornelia are pulled into their orbit, feeling revitalized and refreshed by these youngsters who seemingly eschew the material trappings of success and the social strivings that make such success possible. They watch VHS tapes, listen to vinyl, eat bar-b-q in the street, and do ayahuasca together. After a while, this relationship alienates them from their peers, who they no longer have time for, as the couple insinuate themselves further into the world of tattooed post-authenticity. Josh, now Joshie, buys a hat, Cornelia dances lamely to hip-hop, and in return, they provide entree for Jamie into the world of documentary credibility and financing. (Darby is pretty much just along for the ride). Josh soon discovers, however, that the seemingly spontaneous documentary he has helped Jamie construct is, in fact, a web of contrivances, and that Jamie perhaps arranged the happenstance meeting after the lecture, as he has so much else in his life, with optics in mind, as a way to access the prestige and vast sums of financing held by Cornelia’s father, a renowned documentary filmmaker of the “direct cinema” era (played with understatement by Charles Grodin). Aghast at the ease with which these youngsters play fast and loose with “truth,” and saddened that there seems to be no difference for them between a “real” and a “useful” friendship, Josh renounces his ways, and his hat, and fully accepts his old man status, although almost at the cost of his marriage, and at the grudging realization that authenticity never was what it used to be. (It turns out that Jamie and Cornelia’s dad have more in common than Joshie can bear). Returning to middle age, the couple discovers that they can finally attain adulthood by refocusing on something other than eclecticism in musical taste and memories of Cookiopuss. Unable to conceive, they decide to adopt a child from abroad, and the film ends with them heading toward happiness by way of accepting their inevitable irrelevance, forgiving Jamie his sins (“he’s not evil, he’s just young”), and horrified by the coming tide of children weened on screens within screens.
While the film does indeed follow a fairly stereotypical, almost mainstream comedy progression, and is intelligent in the Baumbach way (that is, referential to the nth degree), it also has a heart and some wisdom as well. Baumbach smartly concedes that, in the world of documentary, and in the world at large, it has always been thus that authenticity takes a backseat to effectiveness, and that entertainment wins out over truth most any day. This is the source of Josh’s upset; he realizes that he was seduced, and hates that he was taken in by the trappings of no trappings. Further, Baumbach posits, mostly via Grodin’s character, that the ruthlessness necessary for success is not mutually exclusive with actual feeling, and that friendships can be both useful and authentic; perhaps Josh’s problems are rooted more in how he relates to himself, and what he has chosen to value in the outer world, than within a search for authenticity that has been stymied. All the same, the film also acknowledges that our age is different from past eras primarily in the easy access to both people and images that technology provides us. Jamie feels he is entitled to every relationship just as he is entitled to make any artifact of the past, or any image he can capture or discover, his own, as he has come of age in a time of overabundance of access and a scarcity of meaning. For him, the self is the only guarantor of credibility, and so he is not shy about bending all narratives to reflect his own needs, and his own interiority, although, paradoxically, his interiority is made up of nothing but hand-me-down narratives and tchotchkes from a “culture” where truth is no longer contested, a field of battle, but instead a hall of mirrors, each reflection crystallizing its own “truth.” Josh, who perceptively yells “There is no documentary when you film everything – it’s only footage,” is put off by this realization, but at the end of the film finds a way out of the funhouse. How? He simply stops caring if his image reflects. He refocuses on his marriage, and the film maturely suggests that it is the love relation that can provide refuge from the noise of the world; the couple, allied together, can know a truth that does not need to be proved, or contested, and indeed can, as a private reality, exceed any reward the material world can provide. At the same time, it is not sufficient. To be truly happy, and “old,” that is, to remain sane over time, one must turn one’s attention away from the self and back out into the world – not as a proving ground of the self, but as a realm of others who need true connection and love. While this does come in the form of a baby for Josh and Cornelia, it need not; but the film does suggest, wisely, I think, that while a couple doesn’t need a baby to fulfill itself, it does need more than a great collection of vinyl or trips to the Riviera to stave off existential decay.