Thursday, May 14, 2015

While We're Young

While We're Young is - just maybe - the closest that Noah Baumbach has come to directing a conventional marriage comedy.  It's a friendlier, more approachable, slightly more sub-culturally self-aware Baumbach than we've seen in Greenberg, Frances Ha, or Squid and the Whale, but if so it's perhaps only because, well, he himself is starting to get a little older.

The director has made a career out of wallowing in the intellectually hip milieu. He writes for a 21st century accidental misanthrope, the almost hipster who likes Annie Hall, sure, but, really, would prefer to read "The Kugelmass Episode" for inspiration between writing flash fictions in a neighborhood tea house.  Baumbach's films tend to be tours of the types of anxieties that arise from a certain type of stubborn narcissism, and so it is that when the term "hipster" circulates around them - as it so often does - it often feels both like an indictment and an accident. It's often difficult to tell whether the director sees his characters as accidentally cool or pathetic, but in While We're Young the lines are more definitively drawn as generational gaps: here is the couple that once defined a type of cool, here is the couple considered currently cool.  To call up a formidably uncool reference, let's just say: there's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster.

Or, perhaps the film is of two minds about that.  While We're Young divides itself into loose acts dependent on the dynamism of its characters.  One of the film's great strengths (and arguably something Baumbach specializes in) is that all the characters in the spotlight are capable of real, believable change. They have depth, make decisions that are as appropriate as they are surprising, and even if they remain staunch in their convictions, have moments that throw that their beliefs into question.  For roughly the first half of the film we're locked into something that feels a bit like a fresher, smarter iteration of Judd Apatow's This is 40 - but built around the hip couple that didn't bother having kids.  The film opens with Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) visiting friends who have recently found their lives fundamentally altered by the arrival of a baby.  There's something palpably awkward in the moment, and as they return to their apartment they rehearse their logic in a conversation we understand they've likely had innumerable times before: this is why we don't have kids, this is what it lets us do. Of course, Josh and Cornelia's shared life has been relatively stagnant.  Josh has been working (for years, we learn) on a documentary that's rapidly losing funding and unlikely to be completed. Corelia is flat out bored.  The freedom they're afforded by not having kids? They're not really taking advantage of it.

So it is that when a young couple drops in on Josh's lecture and asks him to come out with them, a beautiful friendship is born.  Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are the manic pixie dream couple of Josh and Cornelia's dreams; they ride bikes, host ironic parties, have an apartment stocked with typewriters, books, and records.  They see the world as one big adventurous opportunity, and through them Josh and Cornelia embark on a vicarious adventure.  The  fact that Jamie and Darby want to befriend them, want to hang out, want to live by the seat of their pants and take advantage of all the spur of the moment daytrips and drug trips that their youth allows them is immediately thrilling. 
When the film is at its best, it's living in these moments of difference and assimilation.  Josh and Cornelia find themselves repeatedly tested, forced to reconsider attitudes they've long had until they come close to drowning in deep end of desperation.  There's an unclear way in which the "optimism" represented by Jamie and Darby is slowly revealed to be a sort of falsehood, and by the end the film seems to maintain that there's no going back, that the grass is greener life of block parties, stupid hats, and split second decisions isn't nearly as comfortable as it may appear.

Oddly, though, Baumbach forces the pair to arrive at these realizations by suddenly allowing a subplot to take hold. While I won't reveal the details, there's a type of mentorship that Josh embarks upon with Jamie in the name of friendship, and as the two collaborate on a documentary work a whole new set of ideas on artistic legitimacy and "truth" begins to surface.  The back half of the film digs into these ideas with such a sudden relish that it completely overtakes the other elements of the story.  It's as if Baumbach decided - half way through - that just having a comedy about a couple reclaiming their youth couldn't be enough, that there needed to be a real thesis, real meat.  On their own, both stories are really quite fascinating. Together, even, they hit ebbs where they mesh quite beautifully and become stark, painful turns in the narrative.  Yet, there's something a little too forced about the combination. The concepts are each too big, the space alotted for their exploration too small.  So it is that just as Josh and Cornelia seem to lose themselves, the film sort of does too.

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