While We’re Young (2015)

16 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I do not know what to make of this film. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know what to make of it but I felt I liked it. The second time, I noticed a couple more little things and liked it less. The third time, I noticed even more I didn’t catch the first two times and I find myself grudgingly giving the film a positive review because…I think Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” is both ingenious and infuriating.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as a middle-aged husband and wife living in New York. They admit they’re fine living the life of marriage without children and doing things their own way, unlike their friends (a couple played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz) who have become boring since they started raising their child. Right away, this is an interesting idea that opens a door for character development; but then again, they’re so vocal about their situations that it feels like they’re complaining too much about something they chose for themselves and other things they claim to be focusing on but aren’t putting enough focus into. The couple meets a younger couple, in their mid-20s, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. They’re lively, opinionated, ambitious and definitely hipsters (though the word “hipster” is never spoken once, unless I missed it). Both couples form an unlikely friendship, and it’s here that Baumbach shows an interesting contrast between generations. The older couple has a lust for life but also many awkward moments, and the younger couple is into so many retro things (they collect records, VHS tapes, board games, etc.) that make the older couple feel even older than they are. There’s so much detail put into this contrast and it’s hard to fault Baumbach for accuracy; I wouldn’t doubt the New York hipster culture is like this.

Perhaps the biggest difference between generations is that today’s (in shape of the younger couple) seems to expect to have everything they want handed to them without having to work so hard to get it all. They’re actively nostalgic but perhaps lazily content with life. Stiller’s character, on the other hand, has worked so hard to get where he wants to be. He’s a documentary filmmaker who has spent years on a project that he’s sure will be a milestone in capturing “life.” (The problem there is that it’s overlong and kind of boring; even he admits that.) His wife, played by Watts, is a producer whose father (Charles Grodin) is a pioneer of the genre whom Stiller aspires to be like. Then Driver’s character, also a documentary filmmaker working on an ambitious project, has this idea for his film that will mostly go places and jump-start his career, even with help from Grodin’s character. And Stiller becomes resentful that this kid is having the success that eluded him.

Maybe that’s what kept throwing me off the first couple times I saw this film. There’s too much to keep track of, whether it’s montage or production design or character or truth. It’s overstuffed… But then again, at the same time, it’s hard to criticize the film for that, especially when you see how much Baumbach was clearly paying attention to everything around him in his own life so he could properly portray it on film. He is trying his hardest to make everything work and most of it does work. In fact, this is why I had to see the film again: to catch something I didn’t catch before. And I’ll be honest—the second time I saw the film, I thought to myself, “Oh…*that’s* what he was going for,” as if he were making a smug commentary on something in particular. Then I really thought about it and realized maybe it wasn’t so smug as much as it was observant. I do recognize this behavior around me and at age 23, who am I to judge what a 45-year-old man sees, since the film is mostly told from the perspective of a 45-year-old man (the Stiller character), when even I don’t know much about everything I see in my own generation?

And this is why I give “While We’re Young” a positive review (maybe not so “begrudging” as I thought)—it kept me thinking. Why am I not giving it a higher rating than three stars then, you may wonder? Well…because of the last act. The last act tries to juggle ethical dilemmas and reveal the nature of “truth” in art and in life, as Stiller tries to use his newfound discoveries about himself and his friends (old and new) to prove his points in a climax. He desperately wants to prove to everybody that he’s right about Driver on numerous levels. Not that some of what he says are true, but the more he tries to prove it, the more pathetic he becomes, especially when it’s considered the age difference between him and Driver.

But then I realize as I write this review…I think I get the irony here—that Stiller has dropped to a point so low that he’s actually making someone half his age a central figure in his universe. He’s supposed to come off as sort of pathetic and he still doesn’t know what he needs to know in life. He’s almost as if he won and even then he won’t give up.

I could criticize the film’s final act for being so broad, but even so, it has its own points to make and knew how to do it. So why the hell am I criticizing it?! I swear, this review sounded a lot better in my head, but actually typing it for this review is making me feel kind of pathetic. “While We’re Young” is a film that puzzles rather than satisfies. What is necessarily wrong with that? Many character studies (especially Woody Allen’s films of the 1970s) have provided commentary and humor by doing exactly what this film is. Baumbach is becoming a powerful voice in the modern-day independent-film scene and getting his points across in a non-commercial way that is sometimes welcome and other times pretentious. In this film’s case especially, the glass is either half-empty or half-full. Yes, I know this review is all over the place, and for me, writing about it helps me express my full opinion of the film. In the end, I can’t deny it—“While We’re Young” is a terrific film and one I’ll probably watch a few more times because I want to understand it more.

NOTE: The Smith’s Verdict rating was originally three stars. I immediately bumped it up to three-and-a-half after finishing this review.

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