While We're Young

Fake it to make it!
Noah Baumbach
Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried
The Setup: 
Aging Manhattan couple befriend younger hipster couple.

Noah Baumbach: WHAT is his problem? He consistently creates well-observed resonant, contemporary characters and puts them in genuinely interesting, culturally-relevant situations—and then ALWAYS brings it to an ending that betrays everything he’s just built up while also insulting you for becoming involved in it. This film seemed like his most bitter disappointment, as for 90% of its running time, I was thinking it’s his best film and everything is really working… but oh no, it’s still Baumbach, and he is still determined to flee from the implications of what he’s created at the very last second.

So Ben Stiller as Josh and Naomi Watts as Cornelia are married, and in their mid-forties. He has released one successful documentary and has been working for ten years on another. She apparently has no job, but somehow they maintain an affluent Manhattan lifestyle and massive apartment. Their friends just had a baby, and they have tried, and make it clear several times that they want one, but Cornelia had several miscarriages and they just can’t go through it anymore. Josh teaches a documentary class, where he meets Adam Driver as Jamie and Amanda Seyfried as Darby, who invite them to dinner. They’re hip twenty-somethings who “married” in an empty water tower. He’s an aspiring documentarian, she makes “artisanal” ice cream, they listen to music on vinyl [Jamie puts on Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” without irony] and watch movies on VHS. They also live in a massive, spacious, fabulous loft, presumably in Brooklyn, which marks them as quite affluent but without any information given as to their sources of income.

They start hanging out with the new couple [and ignoring their old friends with the new baby], attending “street beach” parties, eating at artisanal pizza places, and going to some shamanic ritual thing in which they take a hallucinogen, puke up a lot of stuff, and discover insights about themselves. As we go along, certain details start to creep in, like that Jamie never offers to pay restaurant bills. The most vivid sequence, for me, was Cornelia going with her friend with the new baby to some class where this horrific band plays dance music for babies and moms, where she gets claustrophobic and flees. She immediately runs into Darby, who invites her to a hip-hop dance class. Watts was terrific in this sequence, letting her emotions vividly play across her face, her discomfort as well as the surprising joy she’s feeling come through. The couple is re-energized at home [we’ve found out earlier that they haven’t had sex in over a year], and are given to compare: the young couple is generous and open, they don’t distinguish between high and low culture, they aren’t interested in success.

The main driver of the film becomes a documentary that Jamie thinks about making, in which he’ll go on Facebook, and drive out to interview the first old childhood friend that contacts him. Josh, trying to be more open and generous like his new friends, goes along to help, as a cameraman. They go, and find out that the friend is in an institution, having tried to kill himself. Seems like there’s not much there, but Josh Googles the friend and discovers that he actually killed a few of his fellow troops while on assignment. They decide to set up more interviews and flesh it out into a more full documentary. Cornelia is soon enlisted as a producer, and her father, Breitbart, a documentarian on the level of D.A. Pennebaker, is drawn in to “give it his blessing.” Earlier, Josh and Jamie had run into Breitbart at a restaurant, and we saw how Jamie hung back for a bit without Josh’s knowledge [Josh and Breitbart have an acrimonious relationship], in order to make Breitbart’s further acquaintance.

Soon Josh is slowly starting to play a more peripheral role in what is becoming the Jamie story. He goes to a financier looking to invest in documentaries, and is rejected [justly—there is no question that Josh’s project is muddled and he can’t sell it], but this same guy later shows up as a financier of Jamie’s project. He was introduced by Brietbart. Josh’s editor is now working for Jamie—and so is Cornelia. Friends of Josh’s are starting to show up at Jamie’s screenings. Jamie has even appropriated the scholar Josh is basing his documentary around—a serious incursion which is never, ever commented on in the film. Soon things come to a head with Cornelia, and she and Josh separate for a few days. By the way, this is all excellently-written, sharply-observed and beautifully laid-out across several casually-flowing scenes, which only makes it all the more frustrating later.

It gets even more interesting when Josh pieces together that Jamie knew that his wife’s father was the famous documentarian even before showing up in class—the “chance” meeting was arranged in hopes of snagging the bigger game. Then he realizes that Jamie KNEW about the soldier’s story [killing his comrades] before going down there—it wasn’t a chance discovery, the whole thing was set up—and furthermore, the soldier wasn’t Jamie’s childhood friend, but Darby’s. So the soldier’s story is true, it’s just that the documentary presents as “true” are not true. And for a while it was starting to seem like this was going to be the story of being taken in by a sociopath… which I thought would be really fascinating!

Then comes the ending. Jamie is attending a sort of lifetime achievement thing with Breitbart and Cornelia and the financier, Jamie being touted as Breitbart’s new protege. Josh gets there and they have a confrontation out in the lobby—Jamie conveniently steps out during the big speech expressly for this purpose, apparently. So for a while we cut between Josh accusing Jamie of being unethical and untruthful, to which Jamie responds that “everyone does it” and “that’s old man talk.” Meanwhile, we’re cutting to Breitbart giving a speech about integrity and truth in documentary filmmaking… yes, a bit contrived and constructed, but in a way that’s really working [although it does flirt with being a “you young kids today!” screed]. And then… Baumbach decides to undercut everything he’s set up so far and tell us “Just kidding! It was all bullshit!”

Josh makes Jamie go in and confess to his fabrications. Surprisingly, no one cares. Not Breitbart, the classic documentarian who just delivered a speech about authenticity and integrity, says it doesn’t really matter that Jamie created an untruthful film [and that he himself was used], because “It’s a good film.” Not the financier, although he’s an idiot from the start. Cornelia pointedly does not support her husband, or do much expect look embarrassed by him, and also agrees that truth and honesty do not matter, because “It’s a good film.”

There is then a truly mystifying exchange… Josh sees that during this whole painful encounter, Jamie has been filming him. He asks him to stop—and you think this is something really serious, things are going to really be resolved now—but suddenly. inexplicably, Josh’s sleeve is on fire, and Jamie throws a bucket of water on him. The whole surreptitious, evilly insensitive filming is never addressed.

There is then a scene outside with Josh and Cornelia in which Josh agrees that—Yeah! He can’t believe he was being so silly! OF COURSE it doesn’t matter that Jamie made all that stuff up, presents lies and truth in his films, and personally manipulated all of them so badly. How SILLY of him to think any of that is important!

There is some nauseating pap about how he “has everything he needs right in front of him” [i.e. Cornelia] and then… we cut to an infant, one year later. You’re thinking “Oh no, they went ahead and had a child,” but find out no, they’re being driven by their friend with child to the airport. And you think “Oh good, maybe they’re going to take one of those vacations they’ve been saying the whole film they never take…” but no—they’re flying off to ADOPT A HAITIAN BABY! Which is really the final insult, in another vein, as the movie now undercuts their entire film-long struggle that adults CAN find meaning and purpose in their lives without having children, only to say: “Just kidding! No they can’t!” This was enough to make me Wiki it, and OF COURSE Baumbach himself has a child [named Rohmer Emmanuel, by the way]. Then it mercifully ends.

I just don’t get it… why spend the entire film building up a moral argument, to only turn around and say “Eh, I guess it doesn’t matter” in the last few seconds? The movie sort of turns on the older couple falling in blind love with the younger couple, but soon they both start to have their reservations, and soon enough Josh in particular has specific, and well-founded issues with Jamie, and confronts him. So it seems like the film is making a point that there is a slippage of moral issues with the younger couple, that is, it’s okay to fudge details presented as truth and it’s okay to use dubious methods of meeting people who can advance one’s career, and for a while, the film flirts with being a screed against the younger generation. That might be over the top, but would maintain the film’s integrity… but instead it just comes out with a big statement it’s just the older generation being cranky, and none of it really matters. So it’s not that it’s saying it’s pointless to hang on to morality in the face of the march of history, or you have to face that things will change… it’s saying that morality itself doesn’t matter. The moment when Jamie is filming Josh at his most vulnerable, you might say “Wow, that guy’s really evil,” but later, Josh has a line specifically saying Jamie is “not evil.” It would be one thing to build a movie around this conundrum and then say that Josh is wrong, but to build a whole movie around a topic, then just claim that whole topic doesn’t matter? If this is actually brilliant, please write and tell me why.

It’s also disappointing to find the film, which depicts the struggle a middle-aged heterosexual couple might have when they can’t have kids, ultimately decide that the only way they can be happy is in having kids some way or other. So while we see them exploring taking vacations together and hopefully finding a way to be sexually attracted to each other again, which there are hints might happen as they open themselves to new interests, it comes across as an easy solution, a giving up, and defeat when they just go ahead and recognize that they must have a child. Totally valid ending… just a bit of a cliche and with the feeling of being a cop-out.

So, like all of Baumbach’s films, it’s very well-written and insightful and very much worth seeing… and, like all of his films, it loses its nerve right at the very end, and instead of making a strong statement that might not everyone might agree with, it turns around, all but apologizes for itself, and makes a hasty exit. I really don’t get what this guy is up to.

Should you watch it: 

You should probably still see it but it’ll translate well into any format.


Hope you don't mind the late comment but when I intend to see a movie, I stop reading your reviews before the spoilers. Now that I've seen While We're Young, I am in near total agreement with you on the film.

I thought it worked pretty well as a movie about creative frustration / failure and Gen Xers being supplanted by the millennials, but I had three major problems with the movie:

1. I felt that Baumbach laid it on a little thick with the satire of the Jamie type 20-something hipster. I could easily buy the retro clothing and record player etc. but the peyote ceremony was about a step away from an SNL skit and the tone felt like it was from a different movie altogether. I could never quite tell how serious I was supposed to be taking this. Actually, I hated Jamie from the get-go so even as someone of roughly Josh's age I just couldn't see the fascination.

2. Even as a father of a young child, I greatly resented the idea at the end of the movie that Josh / Cornelia needed to have children to feel complete. I thought that was incredibly cheap and insulting.

3. I also had a huge problem with the way the documentary fraud was handled and still have no idea what I'm supposed to take away from that entire subplot.

Oh well.

I just saw it, and yes, it's a pity a film with so many interesting ideas just peters out and isn't brave enough to really tackle all the issues it deals with. Personally I felt the scene that breaks the tone and seems out of place (besides, in its own way, the ending) is Ben Stiller's character going to the lifetime achievement ceremony on roller skates. It felt like the typical ridiculous comedy moment from Adam Sandler or, well, Stiller himself in his sillier roles.

Actually the movie, from the beginning, seems to take a benign approach to Jamie's sociopathy with the opening quote about letting young people gently enter your life and change you. But yes, like Scott and the commenter above, I just can't believe how cool all the "adult" characters are with Jamie manipulating them and even casually recording Ben Stiller's breakdown. That scene rings so false, and I wonder why Baumbach seems to be so afraid of saying that yep, Jamie IS manipulative, narcissisitic and downright evil.