Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: "While We're Young"

Writer/director Noah Baumbach makes movies that often seem lightweight at first glance, even frivolous, but creep up on you with their hefty themes and cerebral contemplations.

The newest from the filmmaker behind “The Squid and the Whale” and “Frances Ha” is “While We’re Young,” about a married couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who fear life has passed them by and want another shot at youthful liberation. They do so using another couple who are about 20 years younger as surrogates, befriending them and absorbing their carefree lifestyle.

“Young” is simultaneously very funny and very thoughtful. The movie is trenchantly observant about how we live today as individuals within a changing society, especially how evolutions in technology have affected the ways in which we communicate with each other and tell stories – for good or ill. (Mostly ill, in Baumbach’s take.)

Baumbach visited some of these same themes in “Greenberg,” which also starred Stiller as a Generation X guy trying to fit in with the Millennials, and looking poorer for the effort.

Josh (Stiller) is a formerly successful documentary filmmaker whose career has been swallowed by his latest project, 10 years in the making and not any closer to completion, or even coherence. It’s something about power in America, but not only is Josh incapable of summing it up in an elevator speech for potential financial backers, he couldn’t even do it if they took the stairs.

His wife Cornelia (Watts) is a producer for her father (Charles Grodin), a storied documentarian – think Pennebaker or Maysles -- who used to be Josh’s mentor until they diverged on aesthetics. Josh promotes the idea of the “personal documentary,” in which the filmmaker is an active participant in shaping a narrative.

Cornelia and Josh get along seemingly well. They’ve got their work, they don’t seem to want for money, and they have a small circle of acquaintances their own age. But there’s an undercurrent of regret there.

They have no children (after failed attempts years ago), and feel estranged from their closest friends, Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, both terrific), who just had a baby that their lives now revolve around. And Cornelia sits in the middle of the schism between her husband and father.

Things change when they meet Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. They’re 25-ish hipsters, married but otherwise seemingly untethered to adulthood. He’s an aspiring filmmaker who attends one of Josh’s classes, and she makes her own ice cream. In very short order the two couples have glommed onto each other, with Jamie seeking professional help from Josh and Cornelia finding emotional support from her counterpart.

This section contains quite a lot of laugh moments, such as Cornelia’s horror after being roped into her friend’s baby music class, or Josh pathetically copycatting Jamie’s slouchy fedora and vinyl obsession. There’s also a great scene in which they attend a New Age-y session where people drink ditch water to inspire hallucinations and purge the soul (and stomach). Stiller ponders dizzily, sounding like Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now.” And the shaman, who rides a hip Vespa, frets about his charges purging onto his carpet.

But things get more somber, and smarter, as time goes on. Jamie, played assuredly by Driver, proves to be a sly manipulator, affecting too-cool nonchalance while quietly directing events in his favor. Josh begins to resent his young pupil/guru and his film methodology, especially regarding a project about a disturbed Afghanistan veteran (Brady Corbet).

If the film has a weak spot, it’s that the female characters start out as full partners in the storytelling process and gently recede into the background. The movie becomes more and more focused on Jamie/Josh, with the Grodin character as the third leg.

My objection is a mild one, based not on political correctness but regret for missed opportunities for insight. At 97 minutes, this is the rare film these days that could stand to be longer.

In many ways, “While We’re Young” is Noah Baumbach’s most mature work to date. For a little while I thought the movie had simply forgotten to be funny, but it was deliberately morphing into a second half that is decidedly less jovial but inarguably more profound. Such is life, and moviemaking.

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