While We’re Young
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Written for the screen and directed by Saverio Costanzo
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Since 2009, Adam Driver has infiltrated indie cinema and Hollywood alike. Starting off with small, independent shorts and bit parts on television, he parlayed himself into bit parts in major Hollywood pictures like J. Edgar and Lincoln. He then gained mainstream cred as Adam Sackler on Lena Dunham’s Girls. Oh, and he’s also going to be in the new Star Wars installment.
He’s no stranger to the festival circuit, either, least of all TIFF. In 2012 he co-starred alongside Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s magnificent Frances Ha at Toronto’s festival. The following year, he starred in Australian drama Tracks alongside Mia Wasikowska, and appeared in the Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe-starrer What If (known at TIFF ’13 as The F Word.) This year, he’s front and center in three prominent films at TIFF: the star-studded This Is Where I Leave You, with Jane Fonda playing his mother and Tina Fey as his sister; Baumbach’s latest, While We’re Young, a scathing commentary on the inherent narcissism of the Me Generation; and Venice Film Festival darling Hungry Hearts, for which he and co-star Alba Rorhwacher won Best Actor and Best Actress awards, respectively, at the Italian festival. He deserves every accolade falling into his lap. Driver is hilarious in Baumbach’s latest, playing to his strong suits. Meanwhile, Driver carries Saverio Costanzo’s more cerebral drama about child neglect.
Once again, Noah Baumbach’s taken to contemporary twenty-something culture. With Frances Ha he painted an apt portrait of a meandering young woman struggling to identify herself in a sea of expectation and pressure. Now, the gloves are off, as Baumbach zeroes in on the terrible and vaguely infectious character traits of the Me Generation. Narcissism and pretention are the order of the day, and we’re not talking about flippantly calling your ‘frenemy’ a narcissist: actual, clinical narcissism.
While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as Josh and Cornelia Srebnick, a middle-aged couple watching their friends have babies while they struggle through their careers and mid-life crises. Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) a beautifully spontaneous couple in their mid-twenties with similar career aspirations. There’s only one hitch: they’re pure-breed hipsters. Everyone but Josh and Cornelia see their character flaws, yet they fall farther and farther down the rabbit hole, building their own furniture, attending ritual cleansing ceremonies, and making their own ice cream.
Jamie entrenches himself in Josh’s life under the pretense of professional admiration. A documentary filmmaker, Josh has one remarkable film under his belt. He’s spent the better part of the last decade slogging through his second film. Jamie befriends Josh in an attempt to learn from him, to grow as a filmmaker and flourish under the tutelage of a newfound mentor. As their paternalistic relationship progresses, Josh gradually sees through the appealing veil of Jamie’s presumably charming life. Eventually, the truth surfaces: hipsters are douchebags. Self-absorbed, contrived little ingrates who are so concerned with their own success that they fail to recognize their own clinical narcissism.
Baumbach has relentlessly crafted a hilarious and at times poignant depiction of everything that’s wrong with the Me Generation. Self-absorbed to a fault, they suffer almost unanimously from serious forms of narcissism that forbid them to process their actions the way normal people do. Manipulating your nearest and dearest is ordinary, while stealing someone’s painful life story, altering the facts, and pretending to have experienced something is just par for the course. They live a fake life of pretentiously contrived eccentricities that amount to little more than a checklist of personalities to embody. Their friends are all superficial, and their experiences are tainted with little more than the desire to say they’ve done X, Y, or Z. But from the outside, we wouldn’t know. They seem happy and fulfilled, living without a care in the world. A quirky, flea market-attending existence where thrifting is no longer a verb, but a way of life.
Stiller and Watts play the perfect counterpoint to Driver and Seyfried’s obnoxious hipsters. Concerned with real-world dilemmas like fear of rejection, fear of failure, the inability to procreate, and one’s role as a functioning adult in society, they embody the normal emotional responses humans are supposed to have.
Jamie and Darby are toxic. While Seyfried’s Darby is mostly just along for the ride, she’s perfectly aware of the manipulative, narcissistic behavior of her man-child in a fedora husband. Her performance is perfectly fine, if forgettable, as her character is in a perpetual state of being overshadowed by her egomaniacal spouse. Driver is perfectly skin-crawling. The depths to which he manipulates those around him is shocking and infuriating, making him hard to stand at times – especially if you’ve encountered such insufferable, manipulative boors at some point in your life. For this, he must be commended. His performance is on point.
Where Driver shines brighter by comparison is in the emotional, pseudo-horrific drama Hungry Hearts, the first English language feature from director Saverio Costanzo. A young couple struggles over the health of their prematurely born child. That, in essence, is the premise of Hungry Hearts, the fateful story of Jude (Driver) and Mina (Alba Rorhwacher). The film never claims to be more than a drama, centering on the struggles of young parenthood, paranoia, and superstition. It does not position itself in any way as a supernatural thriller. So why does it feel like a failed attempt to reimagine Rosemary’s Baby?
Costanzo has overcomplicated things, taking Hungry Hearts to a partially derivative place that does more damage than good. The story of how horrifying parenthood can be, and how dangerous paranoia can be in relation to raising your children, is substantial enough. Add two exceptional actors, and you’ve got yourself a fine feature film by any standards. Instead, there’s a vague air of the supernatural, some kind of unholy influence, that seems to perch itself just atop the story.
Rosemary’s Baby is a truly brilliant film. Its dialogue on the horrific nature of childbirth and motherhood was revolutionary for the time, and still stimulates voracious discussion today. But remove the supernatural, remove its impetus, and it deflates. Hungry Hearts could have stood firmly on its own two feet. For whatever reason, the strength of its premise alone wasn’t trusted, and so it falls apart. The inexplicable half-hearted attempt to include a hint of Rosemary makes Hearts unfocused. It never seems to settle on a tone or direction, creating a more irritating cinematic experience than an enlightening one. The pacing is uneven, and at times glacially slow. The writing becomes repetitive, allowing the dialogue and the believability of the characters to suffer. We stop caring about them, and become irritated with their inaction.
Though a master of visually creating tension and amplifying claustrophobia, Costanzo’s bizarre use of fish-eye lenses and dramatic lighting alienates the audience instead of luring them in. The opening sequence – easily the least cute Meet Cute in history, but beyond charming as a result – sticks us in a stinky cube and locks us there. We feel as trapped as Mina does, stuck with the newly-encountered and temporarily digestively challenged Jude. It’s a beautiful, brilliant, and hilarious scene. But as the film progresses, and this pseudo-supernatural tension is thrust upon our protagonists, the cinematographic choices just fall to pieces, seeming more baffling than beneficial.
Rorhwacher is truly fantastic. Her maternal struggle is painful to watch, yet beautifully realized. Her character, however, is painful. Attributed mostly to the dialogue, Mina is insufferable. She is so outlandishly negligent that it becomes an almost unwatchable film by its middle.
Which brings us to Driver, in what is quite possibly his most mature role to date. Like his co-star, he is beautiful to watch. His struggle is real, and his pain is palpable. But his negligence, as well, falls into the category of inexcusable. A strong character, Jude is rapidly positioned as spineless in the presence of his wife’s moronic insistence.
In the end, it’s a shame. Hungry Hearts has good bones, but sides with over-complication for inexplicable reasons. As a result, the film as a whole suffers, with its merit riding solely on the backs of Driver and Rorhwacher. But this is just the beginning for Driver. Now with firm international acclaim under his belt, as well as mountains of indie cred and hipster appeal, he’s poised to take over Hollywood. Hopefully we see much more of him, in diverse roles that stretch his potential.