Authenticity. That’s what this is all about, this Noah Baumbach dramedy here, see? This earnest, sobbing, whimpering, celebration of a film – a new jewel in the re-emerging genre of mid-life crisis cinema – an honest, cynical and genuinely chucklesome comment on that in-betweening phase of youth and ageing that we’re hurtling towards (if not already there), with added elements of thriller thrown in too. And the familiarity of all this, for me, was damn eerie.
Mild-mannered documentarian Josh (Stiller) and producer wife Cornelia (Watts) are faced with a shifting reality. Their friends are having kids, having their lives remoulded by infants and it not only baffles them – it downright petrifies this suddenly fortysomething pair (and let’s face it, all of us a little bit). Josh and Cornelia want to stop time, halt their ageing – or ideally, turn the clocks back. Cue a cracking first hour of both nose-laughs and belly-laughs with cutely observed dialogue and some bizarre situations.
There’s a more theoretical counterpoint here as well. Josh is lecturing on film theory, standing small in the well of his auditorium – he’s talking about authenticity of process in documentary filmmaking. The problem is, he never actually finishes his films. He just shoots hours and hours of rambling interview footage, putting off intimacy with his wife and insulating himself against any kind of life-affirming spontaneity. He’s being bogged down by his work; he’s becoming pretentious (and sounds like I did at uni – his documentary pitch is practically my undergrad dissertation on the military-industrial complex).
Josh uses his documentary project as a shield against reality. Later, this Godard quote arises: “Fiction is about me; documentary is about you.” Can a filmmaker shoot a documentary and reveal himself to the viewer? (What about film reviews?*) Film theory may be a sidepot in the dramatic stakes here, but it’s a fruitful one that neatly frames While We’re Young; Josh tends to make everything in his life about himself and his struggles – except his work (at least explicitly).
But let’s get to it – in Josh’s auditorium audience is a young couple, the driven-but-manipulative Jamie (Driver) and sweet-natured Darby (Seyfried), see? Jamie is also a filmmaker, and his eagerness to wriggle into that seemingly inaccessible world through Josh, Cornelia and her world-renowned filmmaking father (Grodin) is where the film crosses from comedy to near-thriller. This young couple are like cat burglars climbing through the open window of Josh’s life, bringing with them all that guerilla glamour of youth and verve and DIY-arty sensibility. They may be breaking in, but Josh is at the door welcoming them. He wants to feel the rush of youth again and try new things, discover himself, shield against reality a little bit and yes, do drugs.
Driver’s slightly off-kilter mannerisms and behaviour are effective, and it helps that he’s already well-known to audiences through his role in Lena Dunham’s Girls. He’s just a little bit more a prick here. But his demeanour is alluring, if deceptive. He does weird things as he moves; he’ll spin on his heels, tilt his head, or twist his arm an odd way. Driver dominates the screen as much as his character Jamie dominates Josh. Whether Jamie wants to make documentaries in the manner of his newfound mentor, or whether he wants to make something different (and less ethical) becomes the pivot for some good ol’ psycho-thrilleresque back-stabbery later. And all the while that Godard quote hangs in the air.
The weirdest thing of all about Baumbach’s latest is the familiarity of these characters – and for me, almost too familiar.
Exhibit A: As part of his transformation, Josh buys a hat. Partly because Jamie wears one. I had a phase when I wore one too. Yeah, not proud of it. For a few months I wore this little checkered grey Fedora – I was given it by some guy at some weird, bright Saturday day-time party thing near Brick Lane. I don’t know if I was having a quarter-life crisis at the time, or something. I got rid of it after a while. At first I used to pull it down to cover my eyes, then it was more just plopped on the back of my head “for the look”. There was something nice about arriving somewhere and laying your hat down, though. But I wouldn’t say I miss it.
There’s a moment when Josh and Cornelia accidentally crash a friend’s party after a surprise visit – this is post-youthful transformation into hip-hop dancing, race-bike-riding, hat-wearing 25-year-old fortysomethings. Now at the party, they’re back where they started, surrounded by people their own age. And they look like they’ve been restyled by Gok Wan in a particularly uncomfortable episode of that show that Gok Wan does. They’re neither young nor old, needed nor wanted. They’ve become a bit like discarded Fedoras.
Exhibit B: I drank ayahuasca once. In the Amazon rainforest. With a trainee shaman (you get those). He didn’t have a Vespa and he wasn’t a yuppie. I puked hard until it was bile. The experience was cleansing. Ayahuasca has the naturally occurring active ingredient dimethyltryptamine (or DMT, which are my initials). I didn’t get Egyptian imagery, though. What I did get was a lot of Incan symbols raining through my vision before all the chucking up. Then I was knockout on the floor under a hammock in the shaman’s back hut, staring up at a waxing moon with two other people either side of me. It was mostly flesh-eating animals that I then thought I saw innocently wandering about – but they didn’t mean any harm. I was relaxed. Random thoughts. A small child offered me a tarantula. I said no thanks. Then I went for a kip. They say after you wake up post-yage, you’ll never have felt more alive. That’d be hard to disagree with. But here they seemed even more depressed. The morning I found to be warm and tasty. I didn’t get any movie-style revelations though.
‘Trip out’ scenes (which have made a big comeback since the Apatow effect in US comedy) is starting to feel slightly obligatory – perhaps not gratuitous, because plot does develop and they’re generally pretty funny – but we’re getting a touch rote now. Prote-on-drugs moments can be fun and revealing – they (purportedly) show an audience how a character “really is”; what they think and feel and hide. (I don’t know how true that is really; it’s not quite the same as vino/veritas, I feel.) Substance-dabbling is also a fast-track route for a character to meet with revelation. That happens here. It always does. In the movies.
Exhibit C: This was the moment when this film hit its first triple-20. At one point, Jamie discourages Joshy from googling/IMDbing an answer to a lingering question they can’t remember the answer to. Jamie says we should try to remember things by ourselves or just accept that they’re forgotten. I used to spout things like this (mostly because I didn’t have a smartphone), and I still partly agree. I mean, at least trying – for 30 seconds, or a couple of minutes – usually brings it back; the name of that song, that film, that girl in that thing. It might be 24 hours or even a week ’til it strikes you, when you least expect it, when you’re least in need of it – but sometimes it does arrive.
There may be a lot familiar about Jamie for me, but there’s also a bit of Josh (so doubly painful). It’s taken me two weeks since seeing it to sit down and write about it. Even now I’ve got up to put the kettle on; I went hunting for a Fat Possum Records sticker to put on my keyboard case, then I changed my socks – it occurs to me it would be good to write this while I’m young. [Now two more days have passed since I started on it.]
Later, Josh and Cornelia meet up with the ‘other’ for dinner – their friends Marina (Dizzia) and Fletcher (Horovitz) who’ve recently become parents; the anchors to the piece. Their lives and their selves (and their view of themselves) are changing fast, but they go with it. Josh and Cornelia invite them out to a party straight after dinner. “Since when do you do more than one thing in a night?” (Personally, my favourite line.) They may have lost all the spontaneity and freedom they once had – it just makes Josh and Cornelia’s insecurity even more tragic. But for all of that, their insecurity is human and the goosebumps moments come when they rediscover themselves (particularly when Cornelia gets really into her dance classes.)
Yet Marina and Fletcher aren’t the trapped and unthinking automatons Josh and Cornelia make them out to be. There’s good and bad to both sides of freedom and family.Fletcher especially takes an almost objective, cynical view of their changed circumstances. He says barefaced: “Even with the baby here, I’m still the most important person in my life.” Josh and Cornelia are both as desperate as each other to be young and free again. And there’s a darker pain behind it, which may go some way in explaining it.
As much as I may on the surface see similarities with both, there are still huge differences, mainly because of background, particularly common to a Baumbach film. I’ve never lived in a trendy converted warehouse loft in New York, for example. Oh, and I can’t cycle no-hands. But those things are largely irrelevant (particularly the last one). We’re all looking for freedom and fun and truth in this thing. And this film has all that authenticity in spades. It’s all about you and me, see? It doesn’t matter what age we are.
(*But it was never doubted a film review reveals the reviewer.)