Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Yearning to be young again

Noah Baumbach’s new film laughs in self-defeat

Tom Shone | March 23rd 2015

The sanctification of youth in our culture is so absolute, its centrality so assumed, that the laughter inspired by Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young”, a brisk, biting comedy about the heartbreak attendant on middle-aged infatuation with the young, has something of the explosive force of newly-liberated taboo. That gentle mooing you hear is the sound of sacred cows being led to the slaughter. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a couple fending off the encroachments of middle age in Brooklyn’s comfortable Cobble Hill. Josh is a documentary film-maker, although the documentary he has been labouring over for the last ten years defies his every attempt to explain it, let alone edit it into releasable shape. It isn’t so much a job, let alone a hobby, so much as a dark suck-zone barring him from embarking on any other activities, such as going on holiday—or trying for a baby.

Cornelia has previously miscarried, and these days contents herself with reassurances as to how okay she is with their childless freedom. “I mean, if we wanted to take off for Paris tomorrow, we could,” she says. More like “a month”, says Josh, what with airfares being what they are—and her job. “A month is still in the realm of spontaneity,” she insists. That diminuendo is lovely. Baumbach has a near-perfect ear for the evasions and ellipses with which couples keep each other pinned in place, as well as a Chekhovian sense of proportion, dropping just enough dissatisfaction into Josh and Cornelia’s lives to keep their rationalisations from sounding adequate, but not so much that either would do anything about it.

Deliverance seems to arrive in the form of Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), two Williamsburg free spirits who stick around after one of Josh’s lectures on documentary and truth one night. Jamie professes to be a fan of Josh’s films. An invitation soon follows to their loft apartment, an Aladdin's cave of millennial enthusiasms: vinyl, electric typewriters, artisanal ice-cream, even a stray chicken. “It’s like their apartment is full of the stuff we threw out,” gushes Cornelia. “They make everything!” remarks Josh. “It's infectious!” What follows is structured, rather ingeniously, as a kind of rom-com in which one couple falls in love with another, tracking through much the same stages as a normal relationship—from infatuation to love, to heartbreak, to breakup. By the end of the film, both Cornelia and Josh will have strayed from the path of fidelity, but what keeps the whole thing from mere bed-hopping farce is the air of truncated yearning to this love quadrangle: you’re never quite sure whether the younger couple represents the children they never had or the selves they once were.

Enamoured of the beautiful Darby, Cornelia enrolls in a hip-hop exercise class; simultaneously invigorated by Jamie’s go-anywhere spirit, and stifling his envy, Josh agrees to help out with his documentary about a high-school dropout, only to see it race towards release, audiences, acclaim. There are distinct shades of “Crimes and Misdemeanours” here, in which Woody Allen’s forlorn documentarian had to bite his knuckles while Alan Alda’s bumptious smoothie pontificated loudly on the secret of his success (“tragedy is comedy…plus time”). You couldn’t help but wonder if Allen wasn’t, in this pairing, serving up two aspects of his own character—whether the Alda character wasn’t an exaggerated version of his own success, a means of dramatising his own feelings of unworthiness and fraudulence.

Baumbach is cut from the same cloth as Allen, unquestionably—the same ambivalent herringbone, cutting first this way then that, driven by the same truth-telling instinct, close to pedantry, which propels his Eeyoreish donkey-men to soft, inevitable self-defeat. A self-defeat you suspect they are half in love with. The terminal passivity of his protagonists is not without its structural problems: his films tend to dribble to a halt, or simply fade away, like a weak handshake. Even “Frances Ha”, much praised for its infusion of nouvelle vague spirit, pooled in the same funk of self-defeat that swallowed “Greenberg” whole, with Greta Gerwig’s heroine flopping from one humiliation to the next. Absent from his work are the usual Hollywood growth curves and third-act catharses. People do not learn from their mistakes in his films: they keep doggedly betraying themselves. But watching them do so can amount to its own form of petulance—a lack of charity posing as an absence of illusions.

Maybe ensembles offer a way out, as they did for Allen. What’s impressive about “While We’re Young” is the path Baumbach has found both to honour the constricted spirit of his characters, and to set them loose within a structure that can sustain an entire picture—almost. There’s a little too much talk of veracity and documentary clogging up the final reel, while the main themes of the piece—the fear and resentment of the young lurking behind middle-aged idolatry—go begging. Doubtless, too, there will be some who decry Baumbach’s shift to snappier, mainstream rhythms: this is almost certain to be his biggest hit. He has nothing to be ashamed of. “While We’re Young” is frisky and ebullient, but it’s also dense and textured, each joke borne from a deep well of private frets and fears, and bearing the unmistakable urgency of a film-maker anxious to get something off his chest. There’s something pushing at the back of our laughter: a sliver of mortal dread.

While We're Young America, March 27th and Britain, April 3rd

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.