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Noah Baumbach explores the trouble of being 45 and 25 in ‘While We’re Young’

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While We’re Young
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
USA, 2014

Noah Baumbach’s last few films have been about protagonists doing nothing, or at least trying to give the illusion of doing something. Ben Stiller’s Greenberg said as much, even while slowly building a doghouse for his brother. Greta Gerwig’s Frances Halloway was a professional dancer who didn’t dance to the point that it made her “undateable”. Baumbach’s latest film While We’re Young is about yet another form of stagnation: middle age. A married couple of forty-somethings encounter a married couple of twenty-somethings, and that illusion that they’re doing everything they’re meant to be doing at this age quickly fades away.

This sort of generational crisis fits Baumbach’s mentality like a glove, or perhaps a stylish, hipster fedora. Though While We’re Young feels like more of a studio project in comparison to Frances Ha, Baumbach has carried over the punchy editing and wry dialogue to elegantly and intelligently sum up the many moments and experiences that make being 45 as complicated a time in a person’s life as being 25.

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Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are a happily married couple without kids, but their closest friends (Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) have rapidly transformed into obsessively smothering parents who now live through their baby girl. One has gotten a tattoo of their child’s sonogram. Another attends excruciatingly childish sing-a-longs intended for the kids but that are more fun for the delusional mommies.

Josh and Cornelia hope to keep their sanity by maintaining the idea they can get up and leave for Paris right now if they wanted to, but quickly realize their last actual vacation was eight years ago. Instead, Josh uses his work as an excuse, endlessly editing an increasingly long and dry documentary about… America? Even he doesn’t seem to know.

And yet he discovers an admirer of his previous documentary work in Jamie (Adam Driver), himself a budding filmmaker and a raging hipster. Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) listen to vinyl, watch VHS tapes, make their own ice cream, play old board games, refrain from social media, and would rather not know something than use the smartphone in their pocket and have that feeling of instant gratification. Jamie and Darby are something of cartoons, but Baumbach has written them in a way that they’re admirable and curious specimens, if anything. He illustrates in a swift montage how the older generation has grown dependent on their new-fangled toys, from iPads, smartphones, Netfli, and Facebook, in a way that’s made today’s Gen-Xers forget the freedom and youth they once had.

“His taste is democratic,” Josh explains about Jamie’s affinity for just about everything, from something kitschy to something classic. “Their house is full of stuff we threw out, but it looks so good.” Baumbach’s films are filled with these observational nuggets of wisdom, and they’re funny and smart without smacking of a punch line or a forced pop culture reference. But what’s more, Baumbach has the depth to follow up on that isolated observation. At the start of While We’re Young, the film’s composer, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, has a brief cover of David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” a delicate, electronic music box sound that masks Bowie’s pop song as a baby’s lullaby. It’s the new generation taking over the old and making it their own. But as Josh observes, “That was my thing.”

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While We’re Young
isn’t a generic movie about embracing youth even at an old age. It recognizes that there’s a generational gap for a reason, that the tension caused between the young adopting the retro and the middle-aged adopting the modern isn’t just a concept found in Millennial-hating think pieces. Getting old doesn’t have to suck, but like at any age, it has to make you rethink your identity and ask Cornelia’s question, “Why do we stop doing stuff?”

That said, While We’re Young isn’t the perfectly quaint indie gem Frances Ha was, and some of the set-pieces found here might be Baumbach showing his own middle age as a filmmaker. He stages a scene at an Ayahuasca ritual that may be the strangest and most needlessly broad moment he’s ever put to film. And due to the nature of the plot, Baumbach can’t wring modesty from every moment, like when the gag becomes, “Look, it’s Naomi Watts krumping.”

While We’re Young is the rare film made for the young and old alike. It’s about being 40, but to paraphrase Baumbach’s closing insight, it also knows that twenty-somethings aren’t evil; they’re just young.

— Brian Welk


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