While We’re Young movie review

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Exploring the divide between high and low art is an intellectual exercise filmmakers return to from time to time, usually in comedies. From Singin’ in the Rain’s Make ‘em Laugh routine to the movie-within-a-movie in South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, storytellers generally find a way in by extolling the pleasures of not taking things too seriously. 

Writer/director Noah Baumbach takes a refreshingly different angle in his shrewdly calibrated dramedy While We’re Young, which stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a childless married couple in their 40s whose zero-surprise lifestyles are reinvigorated by a friendship with two younger free spirits. Baumbach parallels perceptions of high and low art with perceptions of activities that befit the young versus those that befit the old(er).

Josh (Stiller) is a documentary filmmaker whose long-gestating new project is stuck in a rut: over eight years he’s shot dozens of hours and is struggling to trim a six-hour cut. He describes it with a straight face as “a linear film” but “more of a hyper text” and his vision to “make the documentary Sergei Eisenstein never could.”

That sort of staid language reflects Josh’s personality, which isn’t so much pompous as dreadfully serious – but he’s about to lighten up. He and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) start hanging out with mid-20s couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) whose lives appear to be in a state of hipster tranquillity, which rubs off on them.

Josh is particularly enamoured with the way Jamie mixes and matches art that’s old and new, mainstream and niche, lofty and commercial. He describes the aspiring filmmaker’s vinyl collection as “democratic” and remarks of his DVDs: “It’s The Goonies and Citizen Kane. They don’t distinguish between high and low. It’s wonderful.”

Just as Josh and Cornelia are encouraged to skirt the high/low art divide they ignore barriers that would prevent them from spending time with decades-junior people. Helped along by the writer/director’s penchant for fluid dialogue, so smooth it feels like finely polished mumblecore, Baumbach builds an affecting drama and uses that parallel to fuse ideas around the personal and the creative.

You empathise for the characters and extract some inspiration from their freed-from-the-shackles adventures, which feels genuine despite the twee familiarity of a story in part about breaking free and quiet acts of rebellion. This is nothing new to Stiller’s recent work: as both director and star he pushed a “stop dreaming, start living” call-to-action in 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, what saw him play a schlep whose over-active imagination eventually inspires him to kick-start a second life.

It’s the complexity of While We’re Young’s characters, especially in terms of their motivations, that takes Baumbach’s script somewhere quiet different in its final act. Interpersonal dramas are re-calibrated to construct conflicts where there were previously none, and a general feeling of hopefulness is corroded by darker sentiments. What initially is a story about embracing your inner child becomes more about pricking nostalgic ideas around generational divide: especially the dangerous assumption that youth are purer than their older equivalents and less wizened to the ways of the world.

Ben Stiller’s performance, in a dramatic sense his fullest and most affecting to date, extrapolates the sensitivities of Baumbach’s writing in ways hard to imagine could be bettered. We care for Josh but are not enamoured by him; we understand his feelings but know we may not share them if we were in the same shoes; we sense his life is drifting from one perspective and stagnant from another. The latter is a testament to the thoughtfulness of a non-linear character trajectory about much more than moving from A to B.

Baumbach is one of the more interesting dramatists working in Hollywood today, and real-life foundations are clearly a part in that. The divorce of his parents inspired 2005’s bittersweet character study The Squid and the Whale, while 2012’s Francis Ha — a black and white dramedy with a hipstery funk the younger characters in While We’re Young would surely aspire to emulate — converged with the life of its star and co-writer Greta Gerwig.

Forty-five years old, and thus like his protagonist neither old nor young, you can again sense the affinity Baumbach has with his latest protagonist, who is forced to endure at least a few of the filmmaker’s own thoughts and insecurities. While We’re Young is alternately brittle and tender, funny and serious, and weighed with a balance of head and heart.

3 responses to “While We’re Young movie review

  1. “Exploring the divide between high and low art is an onanistic exercise…..”

    OK, there, that’s fixed that opening line.

    Apart from that terrible opening, it seems from this and other reviews that this might be worth the price of admission.

  2. Breakfast of the Dog
    I agree and will probably see the movie sometime, despite the review’s tangled English… How about this one: “drifting from one perspective and stagnant from another.”? Perhaps they need a subbie down there at Crikey.

  3. I found this movie very flawed, but also very relevant and realistic with great characters and interesting subject matter. And although the lead actors do not fit the parts, they did a splendid job.

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