April 10, 2015

While We're Young

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



While We're Young

COMEDY/DRAMA:

United States, 2014

U.S. Release Date:

2015-04-10

Running Length:

1:37

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin

Director:

Noah Baumbach

Screenplay:

Noah Baumbach

Cinematography:

Sam Levy

Music:

James Murphy

U.S. Distributor:

A24

Subtitles:

none


While We're Young offers two movies for the price of one. The first, about a married couple in their 40s coping with being rootless and middle-aged while lamenting the loss of their youth, is smartly-observed and relatable. The second, about dueling documentary filmmakers struggling over the meaning of truth in their medium, is dull and distancing. Writer/director Noah Baumbach tries with limited success to wed the two but the result reflects the split personality of the narrative components and leaves the audience more puzzled than satisfied.

Wisdom may come with age but it's accompanied by a powerful sense of denial. Few men and women in their 40s or 50s are completely comfortable with their age. The term "mid-life crisis" was coined to encapsulate the inability of older people to leave behind the trappings of their younger selves. As a character notes in While We're Young, a person's chronological age may be 40-something but the mind still thinks like that of a teenager not fully prepared to face the world. Parents are sometimes overwhelmed by the experience of having children because, on some level, they think of themselves as children. Most viewers will be able to relate to this; it's a universal theme. While We're Young certainly isn't the first (or best) movie to address this and it won't be the last. When Baumbach mines this ore, he has found a rich vein. His screenplay is replete with witty asides and amusing anecdotes. There are echoes of Woody Allen. Unfortunately, the movie goes off track when it starts investigating the importance of truth and integrity in documentaries - topics about which Baumbach fails to provide sufficient motivation for anyone outside the filmmaking community to care about. We have to grind our way through scenes of Ben Stiller, Charles Grodin, and Adam Driver discussing their views before getting back to material that works on a human level.

Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a happy couple living with the buried truth that both are unsatisfied with their childless marriage (they tried but the failed fertility treatments became too emotionally painful to continue). They tout the benefits of their freedom from parental responsibility but the falseness of their reasoning recalls Sally Albright's lament about crying when she sees "a family" in When Harry Met Sally. Josh, a documentarian trapped by a film he can't figure out how to assemble meets Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) when he's teaching a college course. They confess to being fans (even though the tally of people having seen his lone completed documentary numbers fewer than several hundred) and soon the couples form an unlikely friendship. Jamie is tinkering with his own production and appears interested in obtaining Josh's help on this project as well as meeting Cornelia's father, Leslie Breitbart (Grodin), a word-renowned and respected filmmaker with whom Josh has an uneasy relationship. As events unfold, it becomes evident that Jamie may not be as honest and guileless as he initially appears to be.

In addressing the issue of how individuals and couples change with age, Baumbach does some interesting things. He contrasts the 20-something couple (Jamie and Darby) with the 40-something couple (Josh and Cordelia) but with an intriguing role-reversal. Josh and Cordelia are shown as having a strong affinity for electronic devices and new technologies (cell phones, tablets, watching Netflix on a flat screen TV) while Jamie and Darby surround themselves with old-school items: books and manual typewriters. The couples have little in common but are fascinated by each other and interested in "sampling." It's the "grass is always greener" syndrome. Baumbach is 45 (roughly the same age as Josh) so he writes from personal experience. He knows what these characters are feeling which is the reason why the human elements resonate with authenticity - a quality that fades when While We're Young wanders off on the tangent about what constitutes a legitimate documentary.

Stiller, who proved himself to be a good fit for Baumbach in Greenberg, is a solid, reliable presence. His chemistry with Naomi Watts is strong. It's not hard to accept that Josh and Cordelia are a couple whose marriage is stronger because of the shared difficulties they have endured. Neither Adam Driver nor Amanda Seyfried leaves much of an impression, perhaps because their characters exist more to provoke reactions from Josh and Cordelia than as well-developed individuals in their own right. Meanwhile, it's a pleasure to once again see Charles Grodin in a substantive role even though Leslie is a large part of what doesn't work. (With the exception of a few small, forgettable roles and TV appearances, Grodin hasn't acted since the early 1990s.)

When it comes to the modern-day American independent movie scene, Baumbach offers one of the stronger voices. His movies often divide opinion among critics and viewers (some seeing him as pretentious while others find him to be refreshingly non-commercial) but While We're Young is arguably his most mainstream effort in a decade. The movie's pitfalls, however, prevent it from fully realizing its pregnant themes. While We're Young may provide the fusion of two disparate narrative packages but the glass is only half-full.

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