Dir. Noah Baumbach. Starring Ben Stiller, Adam Driver, Naomi Watts
Would-be documentarian Josh (Stiller) is full of it, which I think we all could have learned from the trailer, but there are two scenes which prove that even from a filmmaking perspective he’s lost his grip. The second scene is for his sheer pretension; over dinner with his new young friends, Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), he tells them that his inspirations are Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers, and D.A. Pennebaker. The sign of his sophistication is that he doesn’t use their first names; calling him “Frederick Wiseman” would cheapen the magic of theory. In any case these are ridiculous people to take inspiration from, the equivalent of a high school poet saying his poetic inspirations are Yeats, Eliot, and Auden. The first scene is for a little shred of hypocrisy. The lecture that Jamie and Darby crash goes awry when Josh can’t show the class a seal-hunting scene from Nanook of the North. This is a scene which, like many of the other scenes from the film, is posed, predetermined, acted out. What Josh is trying to do with this scene is unclear because of the technical difficulties—from what I can tell, I think he’s trying to say that Nanook of the North is primarily about Robert Flaherty, which, sure—but it is very interesting that he intends to show it off as a positive example. Later on, Darby calls Josh a “purist.” What is a purist who fancies himself a child of cinéma vérité doing with Nanook of the North?
The answer, naturally, is that Josh has no sense of what’s actually pure and what’s not. If he’s such a devotee of the Maysles, say, then the inclusion of this Ira Mandelstam, a scholar whose idiosyncratic view of the world is the major intellectual underpinning of Josh’s gargantuan and messy documentary, is certainly counterproductive. In his real life—his documentary work feels like a long daydream that his unpaid editor, Tim (Matthew Maher) happens to be intruding on—there’s a patina of irony that would prevent him from seeing anything authentic underneath. He and his wife Cornelia (Watts) have struggled to turn themselves into a more typical family; she has had multiple miscarriages. The conversation comes up so often that it’s clear they feel some desire to add a little nugget like the one their friends Fletcher and Marina (Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) have just had; the fact that they hide it under displays of ambivalence or, as in the first scene of the movie, outright incompetence with children makes it clear that they’re not ready to cope with what’s actually bothering them. Baumbach borrows a concept which I’ll always associate with When Harry Met Sally…, though I’m sure it’s not uncommon elsewhere. Whenever someone says they could pick up at a moment’s notice and fly to [inset nation which speaks Romance language] because they’re not tethered to some responsibility, it’s a sign the relationship is on autopilot.
No wonder that the Schrebniks latch onto the Masseys. Watching Stiller and Watts play older people pretending to be younger people is funny, and is most of what’s interesting about the movie even if that’s not what the movie thinks is interesting. It’s funny watching Cornelia have no idea how to be at a hip-hop workout class, although the movie also seems to understand that watching her start to kind of maybe get it is funnier, and the fact that Darby even goes to a hip-hop class is funniest. One of the great social lessons of the 21st Century is that any man who wears a hat outside of his job is a nimrod, and the trilby that Josh chooses for himself is so obviously bad that the choosing of it functions as a point of no return. (Likewise, when he dumps the thing in a trash can later in the movie, it’s like he’s destroyed a Horcrux.) Hip-hop classes and hats, homemade ice cream and vinyl albums, kittens with matching names and a long night’s journey into ayahuasca: these are new experiences for the old folks, and they make the mistake of believing that if it’s new to them it must somehow be more fulfilling. There’s plenty of comedy to be mined here, and plenty of it is in the vein of “Who’s the fool, the fool or the fool who follows him?” Cornelia turns down an invitation from Marina to a weekend in the country in favor of the ayahuasca ceremony that Jamie and Darby have invited them to. Again, what’s funny is not that Cornelia and Josh want to subject themselves to this, but that Josh and Darby, who you’d expect to know better, came up with the idea of going all by themselves.
Marina: What’s an ayahuasca ceremony?
Cornelia: I guess there’s a shaman? And you have to wear white clothes, and you drink this sludgy liquid that is made from from a Peruvian root, and you hallucinate and vomit up your demons.
Marina: Okay…well, we’re just having a cookout and maybe playing charades.
Jamie decides to make a documentary with its roots in Facebook. He’ll make an account (the fact that he doesn’t have one is proof to Josh that the man he sees as a protege of sorts is a fake), see who friends him, and then travel to speak to the person from his adolescence who friends him first. The guy he finds turns out to have one heck of a backstory: he’s in an institution after a recent suicide attempt, and he was part of some minor war crimes in Afghanistan. Jamie isn’t an idiot. He knew all of this before he “got a Facebook message” from Kent (Brady Corbet); Kent was Darby’s friend in high school, not Jamie’s; Jamie appropriates some of Darby’s life story (her mother died of ovarian cancer) in an interview. In other words, Jamie has staged a walrus hunt or an igloo-building as much as Robert Flaherty. Kent doesn’t know the full backstory of what Jamie’s got planned for him, although his experiences are certainly quite real. One is reminded of Roger Ebert’s take on Nanook of the North: “Nanook really has a seal on the other end of that line.” That Josh’s father-in-law, Leslie (Charles Grodin), more or less takes this tack on Jamie’s work while offering significant criticism of Josh’s is more than Josh can stand.
In While We’re Young, Baumbach manages to successfully diagnose a generational issue without accurately getting to the reason why it exists, a condition which I understand is part of the “You’re 40 years old!” starter pack. To him, Josh is a sucker but has his heart in the right place. Being over forty has muddled his sense of what’s real and what’s not, made his BS detector faulty. Jamie is weaponized, using an aw-shucks hipster demeanor and politeness to get what he wants with stunning effectiveness. The last five minutes of the movie are set a year after the events of the movie, once Jamie has become a Sundance darling. “He’s not evil, he’s just young,” Josh says. The movie appears to be taking a similar sort of approach to Jamie, who loses Darby somewhere in the last act and who barely notices when it happens. (Now feels like as good a time as any to mention that Baumbach isn’t particularly good at incorporating women he’s not sleeping with into his movies; aside from this movie, where Watts and Seyfried don’t exist much on their own, think of how Laura Linney is shunted all the way to the side in The Squid and the Whale in favor of another Jeff Daniels sneer or another Jesse Eisenberg smirk.) If Jamie is so aggressively and performatively young, then why doesn’t he do any of the things young people do? What he’s satirizing is not young people but pretentious ones. Young people are oozing with social media of many stripes. Is it possible that a narcissist as bleak as Jamie, someone who is willing to weasel his way into a documentarian’s life to get to his father-in-law, would neglect the practice of self-selling that one can get from Instagram? Jamie’s tactics aren’t really the tactics of people in their twenties in the past five years, but of people who were in their twenties twenty years ago. The movie’s final thrusts miss for this reason, and it makes a scene where a roller-blading Ben Stiller and a supremely disdainful Adam Driver feel as exhausted as Josh must have been roller blading to Lincoln Center.