by Steve Wagner
It is always more powerful and memorable when we are able to experience true issues in the guise of humor and comedy. This we often forget, until a “comedy” comes along and gives us more to think about than the last twenty dramas we’ve seen. Perhaps this is why comic actors continually surprise us with their ability to nail dramatic roles—the comedy they have mined has already trained them to find multiple layers of meaning in a given context. The truth behind the joke is the steak behind the sizzle, and the best comedians—and writers—know this well.
While We’re Young, the new film from writer/director Noah Baumbach, is a perfect example of the umbilical cord that connects comedy with sharp insight, and this metaphor is all the more apt because this film is definitely concerned with babies, not explicitly, but the birth of one is the catalyst for much of the story that follows. Because, as we all know, when a baby comes into the picture, everything changes, and not just for the parents, but for the parents’ friends as well. You know the drill: Two BFF couples find themselves surprisingly growing apart (it won’t happen to us!) after one becomes parents…especially if the other has decided not to have kids. What is left to talk about, to experience together, when one couple is excited about Friday happy-hour and the other hasn’t slept in three days?
While We’re Young is about many things, and it moves quickly from one issue to the next. On the surface, it is the story of an aging Gen X couple, Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who become besotted with Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a young, new-millennium couple, after their former best-friend-couple, Fletcher and Marina (Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia) become parents and quickly disappear into their all-encompassing baby-reality, with their new baby-friends, and their important baby-events, and their maddeningly joyous new baby-perspective on life. Josh and Cornelia, while sticking to their plan to remain child-free, still feel they need to breathe some life into their, well, lives, and see their new in-the-moment, confident, and refreshingly candid (or so they seem) 20-something friends as bringing just the vibe they have been missing. The younger couple feel, well, I’m not sure what they feel, and certainly Josh and Cornelia don’t know either. This becomes more and or apparent as the film progresses; the veils of their misplaced admiration fall one by one, and laugh by laugh.
The secondary plot is the story of three male characters, who are all filmmakers—Josh has been working on a serious documentary for over six years, Jamie has aspirations to make a film of his own, and Josh’s father-in-law, Leslie (the always interesting Charles Grodin) is a famous cinéma vérité auteur famous for making probing, classic documentaries along the lines of D. A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers. As the film moves towards its conclusion, the three men find themselves at ethical logger-heads, each with a singular idea of what it means to make true art, and what is honorably acceptable to achieve that artistic vision. Essentially, one thinks the ends justifies the means, one thinks the means justifies the ends, and one is just pissed off that he has to choose between the two. The moral questions that arise are juicy, and very much a window into the generation gaps that exist today. For there isn’t just one anymore; the old emblem of the long-hair vs. the crew-cut is hopelessly outdated now. There is no such thing as a “teenager” if everyone seeks to live like one.
Along with exploring universal questions regarding aging, While We’re Young is very insightful about the way we live and age now, the way we deal with these issues at this particular time. That this movie is firmly in the moment can be seen in the juxtaposition of the three filmmakers. Only a few years ago, this story-line would be a clear indication that the director is ultimately making a statement about himself—perhaps an artist confessional, an existential cry of pain, or a barbed screed against his critics. But, these days, making a film is ubiquitous in our culture, and Baumbach slyly uses this trope not as a means to deconstruct himself, but as a razor-sharp metaphor for a society where everyone seeks to be the center of the universe.
While We’re Young doesn’t really take a stand for or against any couple or lifestyle or ethic, but it isn’t entirely neutral either—it scratches its head trying to ponder the choices and views of the younger couple, to be sure, but it also looks unflinchingly at the Boomer/Xers whose general age Baumbach shares. Like all great humorists, he wisely skewers hypocrisy no matter the age, lifestyle, or even ethical philosophy of his characters. But, though Baumbach is often flabbergasted by their beliefs and actions, he is never overtly mean to them, and he never condemns them. What really comes through is his mostly sweet and non-judgmental new-millennium acceptance, while still holding space as an equal-opportunity satirist. It is a delicate balance, and While We’re Young admirably maintains this poise throughout.
Baumbach has a great ear for dialogue, and is deft at extracting humor from banter that isn’t “trying to be funny.” It is a rare filmmaker who can communicate intense subject matter through a comic tone, and While We’re Young is Baumbach’s best effort to date. It further explores the neurotic, bittersweet territory of his previous films (The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) yet goes deeper, provides more laughs, and nails the cultural zeitgeist confidently and unapologetically. While We’re Young is a serious, timely drama wrapped within a witty New York comedy; in the end it is simply very smart, observant, and—like life—both unnerving and funny, often at the same time.