16 April 2015

Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’

I came away from this film with mixed feelings about it. So you may prefer reviewers who are both more knowledgeable and more encouraging, like Mark Kermode in the Observer or Richard Brody in the New Yorker. For a start, both these critics are familiar with all of Baumbach’s films, while I’ve only seen Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale. And by the way, Richard Brody hints that, as in the latter, there is an autobiographical element to this film as well.

While We’re Young is a comedy about two married couples in New York, the Srebnicks, Josh and Cornelia, and the Massies, Jamie and Darby. Josh and Cornelia are childless forty-somethings who are starting to find themselves isolated from their baby-producing contemporaries. The Massies are twenty years younger, hipsterish and at first sight unlikely friends for the Srebnicks. However Josh is a documentary film-maker, a field in which Jamie has considerable ambitions lurking under his disarmingly laid-back manner. Josh has been stuck on a project for years and part of the younger couple’s attraction for him is the possibility of rejuvenation. The film is a chronicle of the Srebnicks’ becoming enchanted with a more youthful scene and tastes than their own, and their inevitable disenchantment and return to familiar territory, no older but possibly wiser. Naomi Watts’ Cornelia is just as convincing a half of the troubled couple as Ben Stiller’s Josh; her appearance seems to change quite subtly between scenes, sometimes looking her age and then not. Adam Driver’s Jamie skilfully conveys an ‘almost too good to be true’ quality from the start.

Various reviewers in the UK have compared Baumbach and Woody Allen, and certainly the New York settings and characters appear familiar, as is wondering just how either couple manages to stay solvent in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Stiller’s Josh certainly has something about him of the characters Allen has played in his own films over the years. But I was interested to read that Baumbach is an admirer of the late Eric Rohmer, to the extent that his son is called Rohmer. You could argue that While We’re Young is as much a Moral Tale as a comedy, although Rohmer never overloaded his plots like this one. Not only are there the inevitable complexities of two couples getting close – a Cornelia-Jamie thing almost develops - but Cornelia’s father, yet another documentary-maker, is a significant character and there are two films, documentaries inevitably, within the film. A familiarity with Nanook of the North, Direct Cinema (cinema vérité - I want to see Wiseman’s National Gallery), and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire can only be helpful.

The film starts, Rohmer-style, with a quotation, in this case from Ibsen’s The Master Builder when Solness expresses fear of the younger generation knocking at his door. In the play Solness's involvement with a much younger woman ends in tragedy. While We’re Young certainly has its serious moments, for example debating the responsibilities of a documentary-maker. But I was left thinking that the over cute ‘one-year-later’ ending let the film down. Nonetheless I will try to catch up with Baumbach’s Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding and look out for Mistress America – later this year?

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