|Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller play a middle-aged married couple in Noah Baumbach's While We're Young.|
In each stage of adult life, it seems we must pose ourselves a question. Early on, it is: What am I supposed to do? Then, it becomes: What am I going to do? That is followed by: What am I am doing? Finally, for all of us, it ends with: What have I done? The progression is as natural as the life cycle of a salmon, and every one of us is swimming upstream in search of the answers.
The opening moments of While We’re Young depict a middle-aged married couple completely baffled by taking care of a newborn baby. The woman begins to tell a fairytale, which seems to soothe the child, but as she forgets the basic details of the story, the happy, familial narrative falls apart, as does she when the child starts to cry. The husband is at a loss and has no help to offer. Then, the child’s actual parents come running in, and the stage is set for the couple’s joint midlife crisis.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach has always specialized in upper-middle-class angst in such films as The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg. His last film, Frances Ha, was a marked departure, full of youthful energy and refreshing joie de vivre. In While We’re Young, Baumbach tries to blend the two approaches, but it becomes pretty apparent where his sympathies lie.
The ever-versatile Naomi Watts joins a toned down Ben Stiller as Cornelia and Josh, a childless couple whose friends all seem to have moved on to the child-rearing phase of life and left them behind. It is as relatable a concept as Baumbach has yet tried, and Watts and Stiller find a neat balance of hurt and self-delusion in their characterizations.
After realizing they are not on the same wavelength as their friends who are new parents, they return home and discuss how happy they are with their lives and how, without children, they are free to pick up and leave on a European vacation any time they please. Well, they would obviously need time to plan, they reason, and of course, they have not traveled anywhere in eight years, but the point is that any time they want to go, they can. Nothing is tying them down.
In truth, they are deep in denial. Maybe they do want a child. They have tried before, and Cornelia miscarried. She is unwilling to go through that experience again. At the same time, Josh is a documentary filmmaker who showed promise when he was young but has spent the last 10 years working on the follow-up to his first movie. Just as they begin to face some hard questions about their lives – namely: What am I doing? (see above) – something comes along to distract them.
The distraction is another couple, Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver (Girls, Tracks) and Amanda Seyfried (Chloe). They are young, wild, and full of life in all the ways Cornelia and Josh are not. For Cornelia, they represent an attractive alternative to her middle-aged friends’ baby talk and, in a standout sequence, their mommy-and-me-type music classes. For Josh, it is something much more specific. In Jamie, a budding documentarian himself, Josh sees all the potential he never fulfilled.
So, Josh and Cornelia revert to the extended adolescence embodied by the younger couple, and they spend their time doing drugs, going to parties, and eating homemade ice cream. Josh marvels at how these kids are constantly creating things, an impressive feat to a man who has spent a decade working on a single film. What no one ever stops to ask is whether the things they create – art, film, ice cream, etc. – have value.
This question, perhaps more than any other, will be key to understanding the current generation of 20-somethings, who are all asking themselves what they are supposed to do and what they are going to do, and Baumbach puts it right at the heart of his movie. Due to the unprecedented economic successes of their parents and grandparents, those people just becoming adults now have more opportunities and options for how to spend their lives than any previous generation in history. They will be defined by how they waste or embrace those chances.
At about the midway point of the film, Baumbach and editor Jennifer Lame piece together a brilliant montage of the two couples going about their separate lives. Jamie and Darby listen to classical music on vinyl records and watch VHS copies of crummy ‘50s sci-fi movies, while Josh watches The Daily Show on his phone, and Cornelia listens to pop music on Spotify and plays games on her iPad. The joke is that young people like old things. We might call them hipsters, but the implications are far more insidious than that.
I think we are at a point in our shared cultural dialogue where we can admit a few things. Vinyl records are cumbersome and limiting. VHS tapes have terrible picture quality. New music is fine, and cell phones have broadened the possibilities of communication beyond anything we ever thought possible. By not embracing new technology, Jamie and Darby – and the segment of their generation they represent – are effectively rejecting the opportunities progress affords them.
Early in their friendship, the four of them are having a discussion when one of them brings up a snack they all love but to which they cannot recall one of the key ingredients. They try to remember for a moment, then Josh goes to his phone to check online. He is stopped by Jamie, who says, “Let’s just not know.” He then sits back and smiles. It is a clear renunciation of the Information Age. Just about anything one could want to learn is at his fingertips, but Jamie would rather not know.
The film is not an indictment of either couple as Baumbach has never made a movie that simplistic. Instead, it is a contrast of the ways people from different generations approach their lives. There is a happy medium between analyzing our lives to the point of tedium and shutting out reality to the point of ignorance. As Josh and Cornelia work toward that medium and Jamie and Darby resist it, the point becomes clear. Asking questions is great while we are young, but as we get older, it becomes equally important to find the answers.
See it? Yes.