Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is an on-point dissection of earnestness, authenticity and youth itself
“I’m losing my edge,” James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem) wrote, in his seminal 2005 work of synchronic dance and hyper self-consciousness of the same name, “to the art school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.” It sounds bitter and narcissistic, and Murphy could have easily toed that line ad nauseam, but like in all his great tracks his cynicism is balanced by a winking dash of humour: “I’m losing my edge / to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent / and they’re actually really, really nice.”
That niceness is the subject of Noah Baumbach’s new comedy, While We’re Young. While never casting in doubt the better looks of the generation of young Brooklynites at its heart, Baumbach does take aim at their ideas, their talent and, ultimately, at how real they really are. Mr. Baumbach, whose last two films (Frances Ha in 2012, Greenberg in 2010) have cast a caustic, unflattering eye at the indecisive twenty-something in her trepidation of becoming, makes for a great fit with Mr. Murphy, who has looked after the music the earlier of those films as well as this new one. Murphy has since retired his LCD Soundsystem moniker, but in the space of the three records he did produce, he had made a name for himself with bone dry, painfully honest middle-aged man music that undermined the whiny, witty lyricism by sounding every bit as vital, infectious and energetic as anything else his younger peers were throwing on the dance floor.
Noah Baumbach, now 45 and with eight features under his belt, has carved his own niche with hard comedies that rely on his audience’s intelligence to register on any level other than patently unlikeable. In a departure from the likes of Greenberg, Frances Ha or even the much earlier The Squid and the Whale, though, While We’re Young represents his most brazenly funny, sincere, and warm output in years, even as it careens towards a gravely serious finale.
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play the titular We of Baumbach’s story, as Josh and Cornelia: a moneyed, childless, bored couple in their forties living a life of unfulfilled conservatism in New York. And who better to shake them out of their slow descent into baby talk than the titular Young, represented by Jamie and Darby: a couple of hip, carefree, totally aloof newlyweds played ever so carefreely and totally aloof by Adam Driver (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Amanda Seyfried (ah, Les Misérables?). By happenstance, they stay behind to stroke Josh’s ego after a lecture one day on documentary filmmaking, which by happenstance turns out to be both Josh and Jamie’s vocation – as well as that of Cornelia’s father. The rest, as they say, might be history.
Quickly befriending those crazy kids, it’s not long before Josh and Cornelia are tagging along to street beach parties, hip hop dance classes, bizarre hallucinogenic cleansing rituals and spending time in the younger couple’s spacious, trendy loft so painstakingly and perfectly observed. Baumbach has studied Jamie and Darby’s generation right down to every last backward-pining detail, and it’s so accurate it hurts: the VHS in lieu of DVDs, the board games for iPad apps, the vinyl in place of CDs, the previous iPhone with a cracked screen for an encased, current model, their eschewing of Facebook for real, face-to-face connection.
That insisted-upon confrontation is the crux of Jamie’s new film, which finally relents his resistance to activate a Facebook account by using it as a kind of social experiment. Jamie will, he decides, take the first high school acquaintance who barely spoke to him back then but who nonetheless friend-requests him now, track that person down, and ambush them at their front door with several cameras in place to capture the reactions of the unsuspecting. Josh at first finds the idea gimmicky and a little weak, but when the first subject turns out to have a rich and storied past and several tours of Afghanistan under his belt to account for his present, nervy state, Josh sees in the project the kind of embedded relatability that his own project – an eight years-in-development treatise on Power, America, Turkish Politics and “the very fact of its own making” that he can’t coherently explain to anyone, let along his financiers – seems to lack.
Jamie’s process for engendering that emotional response is the centre of Baumbach’s darker third act, which (without giving away too much) pits the younger man’s reactive opportunism against the ingrained responsibility and accumulated values of both older men, coming to a head at a tribute to Cornelia’s father, whom the film puts on a comparable pedestal to the likes of verité legend D.A. Pennebaker. By further complicating the core quartet’s dynamic with an inciting act made under the heavy influence of drugs, we start to feel the director’s concessions to a few of the romantic comedy’s generic tropes that weaken the overall impact of the end of what is otherwise a breezy, funny, fast-moving hour and a half.
Baumbach intends to conclude the film at a place of moral and ethical outrage in the Brooksian Broadcast News mould, but in reality few in the room – here the prestigious cultural institution of the Lincoln Center – seem to care. In the end, that’s perhaps the hardest, most cutting observation of Gen Y that Baumbach has to offer: it doesn’t make for a conventionally satisfying ending, but it just might be a particularly truthful one, which at least makes him one of the artists his age that have yet to lose their edge. “Are you a hipster?” somebody asks Jamie, at a point where he has reached a level of artistic credibility, and his snappy, evasive response is something like, “Well, I’m of a certain age, and I wear tight jeans.” All said and done, While We’re Young might just be one of the more perceptive films about our inherent self-deception in dodging that dirty word.