Ultimately, Gyllenhaal’s ease with uneasy roles makes this bumpy ‘Demolition’ a somewhat satisfying deconstruction.
Though well-acted and capably directed, the heavy-handedness of Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young makes it one of his lesser efforts. Baumbach tries to anticipate the impending clash between Gen X bitterness and Millennial entitlement, but the execution feels uncomfortably Braff-ish. You’ll probably leave the theater smiling, but we’ve come to expect something a little more substantial from an observant filmmaker like Baumbach.
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.
The cast and crew, fly high in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by visionary Alejandro González Iñárritu. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who never bounced back from his peak stardom days as part of a 1990s superhero franchise, and who is desperate to gain back some spark for his faded career. Riggan attempts to jolt himself back into the limelight through the triple threat of writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
His use of natural lighting, the gorgeous compositions he creates often on the fly, those long takes. This is what we talk about when we talk about Emmanuel Lubezki, the Mexican cinematographer responsible for such arresting imagery in the films of Terrence Malick (The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y tu mamá también, Gravity), the Brothers Coen (Burn After Reading), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Anna”, a short in the anthology To Each His Own Cinema). He is the only cinematographer in recent memory, possibly next to Roger Deakins, that pushes the form to its limits and has name recognition for such. The naturalistic beauty of The Tree of Life was nothing compared to the – wait for it – physics-defying work in Gravity. And here he is again, using a simulated long take for Iñárritu’s Birdman. “But isn’t it just a gimmick?”, you might ask. Well, yes. And that’s probably the point.
At age 45, it feels like writer-director Noah Baumbach is getting soft. Best known for his caustic tragicomedies like Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and Margot at the Wedding, he took a turn in tone for his 2012 feature Frances Ha, which starred and was co-written by Greta Gerwig. So, though the warmth of that film might surprise someone familiar with his work, that it’s a collaboration with Gerwig explains at least part of that tone. While We’re Young, though, Baumbach’s newest film which premiered at TIFF this year and made a surprise appearance at the New York Film Festival, manages to carry that affection. It’s hard to top Frances Ha, but his newest is pleasant and impressive all the same.
Birdman is highly reminiscent of Noises Off, a play by Michael Frayn, about the insanity of actors as they weave in and out of doing scenes live in front of an audience on-stage. The unpredictable actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) throws Riggan Thomson’s life even more into chaos by his refusal to bend to his wishes. Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s recovering addict daughter who has long been put on the back-burner by her dad. Stone and Norton’s challenging forces irritate but eventually bring Riggan face to face with some hard truths about himself.
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.