Just a few days ago I was discussing, with associates of mine, the possible correlation of maturity levels and fashionable hat wearing. Not in an abstract way, but in relation to the hat-wearing (and discarding) of friends and associates. In Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, the fashionable hat becomes one of many symbols relating to life decisions and one’s relationship to the Self. It was a little bit spooky. For a great many people the film will be filled with such astonishingly direct reflections of their own lives. Perhaps it is only astonishing because Western commercial cinema so rarely bothers or dares to come down to the streets and hang with the ‘real’ world. But While We’re Young stretches beyond the confines of both the rom-com and the mid-life crisis film, refusing to merely be enjoyable and relatable (that newly toxic term). It is hilarious, engaging and an absolute pleasure to watch, but it is far more than that. Writer/director Noah Baumbach beautifully weaves the everyday lives of his characters into a complicated and engaging contemplation of what constitutes truth, reality and experience that can easily be described as academic, for those so inclined. Please forget old prejudices against such a term, for critical theory is rarely utilised with such delicate aplomb, fused to the organic development of characters so that all of its parts feel necessary and absolutely right.
The leads, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), are over the rom-com bump, heading into middle age without having hit any of the life signposts that they feel indicate ‘true’ maturity. Cue the inevitable flip-flopping of the older fish gasping for air as they attempt a fruitful friendship with the younger, more daring and ‘alive’ couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). While we are young; it could as easily and truthfully been titled What Other People Do, for this is all to often the guiding principle by which the characters act, define themselves, and judge their own actions. They are riddled with active self-doubt, which keeps them moving and searching, endlessly returning to square one when nothing clicks. Josh and Cornelia are forever caught in the jet-stream of other people’s fads.
Everything in their life is complicated. Except when it’s not, except when it is so painfully simple, and they struggle with both. Such is life. Baumbach and his cast illustrate the inconsistency of life, capturing the many times in one day that one can shift from staring into the abyss to riding the waves. There are elements in this film that will terrify a great many audience members, elements that strike far too close to home to just be shrugged off. Then comes the curveball, the random happenstance of life, and it swings around to remind you why life is fantastic. It’s a rollercoaster ride, one in which the characters earn their exhaustion and their dreams. Accusations that label it as an unsubtle film are misguided. The easy targets and metaphors are easy because they are true, to describe them as being on the nose is to devalue their importance in the greater tapestry; the harder targets are reached because the stepping stones are laid well, and the more ‘academic’ metaphors are absolutely vital to lifting this above being a simple ‘people’ film in which straw-wo/men bump into each other.
The academic aspect to which I refer is the brilliant decision to have the three male leads be documentarians. Charles Grodin (who effortlessly commands the screen, it’s good to have him back!) portrays Leslie Breitbart, father of Cornelia, and here the elder statesman of documentary, having made his name during the height of American documentary in the sixties and seventies. Stiller represents the next generation after Leslie, while Adam Driver is the up and coming generation of social media, digital native documentarian. This not only sets up some interesting points of conflict, but also allows an intriguing evocation of the shifts in representation and ‘truth’ telling in the last half century.
This film will spawn a lot of university essays. However, how these themes are presented is never dry or tedious. In an era of constant personal documenting and crafting of reality through social media, none of this seems abstract or forced. The questions and issues raised are pertinent to everyone, and are never played just for laughs (which isn’t to say they aren’t put to comedic use). If this film has a message it is perhaps that generational conflict isn’t necessary, and that we can understand the common ground we share. There are, ultimately, no villains in this film, just different subjectivities, different social milieus, and different routes to self actualisation. Fear is the only enemy; it eats the soul if you let it, trapping you inside your box forever. Baumbach’s film laughs in the darkness, refuting fear, and putting forward a couple of excellent ideas on how to open the doors and escape the box.
By Ben Buckingham
While We’re Young is now showing in Australian cinemas.