Movie Review: While We're Young (2015)
In Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” Josh, a struggling, 40-something documentarian and his wife Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) become friends with Jamie, a 20-something film student and his wife Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), and anxious humor and personal revelations result. Except the humor isn’t that humorous and the revelations aren’t that revelatory. Plus Baumbach confuses the generational (illegal downloads, et al.) with the universal (assholes get ahead).
At the start, Josh is in a rut. He’s been working on his next big documentary, “about America” and its class system, for nearly 10 years. He has 100 hours of footage, a six-hour doc, and hasn’t paid his assistant in years. His father-in-law, the great documentary filmmaker Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), actually watches the six-hour version and makes helpful comments, which Josh rejects violently. He’s 44 but remains as sensitive to criticism as a 22-year-old.
Then after one of his sparsely attended film lectures, an attendee, Jamie, compliments him, and talks up Josh’s first and painfully obscure documentary, which he says he found on eBay. He’s a true fan and Josh is enthralled. “I wanted to be admired,” he says near the end. “I wanted a protégé.”
The couples become friends, and tend to do what the younger couple does. They go to a street party, foodie restaurants (Josh always picks up the check), and an Ayahuasca ceremony (don’t ask). The older couple struggles to keep up. Josh wears a hipster fedora (w/o having read his George W.S. Trow), and rides a bike in the city (then discovers he has arthritis), while Cornelia is always a step behind in hip-hop dance class. They lose their older friends who don’t get what’s become of them. Neither do we, really. We suspect early that Josh is being played, that Jamie is an opportunist who is using any connection to get ahead, and that early sense is corroborated to the tenth degree. Jamie is a massive douche. But Josh is enamored. “I loved you,” he says to Jamie at the end. Meaning the story is a love story that makes no sense. Love stories that make no sense may feel true—we’ve all wondered over the bad partners of good friends—but they’re rarely interesting as stories.
Here. I’m 52, eight years older than Josh and much less successful, but the only thing of Jamie’s I covet is Amanda Seyfried, which is the one thing that Josh doesn’t covet. He likes Jamie’s energy, even if Jamie is all ironic energy. He wants to help him with his documentary, even though he thinks the concept is stupid.
Actually, let’s talk about that documentary for a second.
Jamie tells Josh, whom he keeps calling “Joshy” and “Yosh,” that he’s never been on Facebook, but he’s going to create an account and then visit in person whoever friends him. The first one to do so is a guy named Kent (Brady Corbet), a high school friend who had everything going for him. They all show up at his front door in Poughkeepsie, camera rolling, but Kent’s sister tells them he’s not there; he’s in a hospital because he tried to kill himself. Turns out he’d been a soldier in Afghanistan. He’d both fought there and fought against the U.S. being there. He’s a true hero who won a Purple Heart. Josh finds all of this information online. And suddenly the stupid documentary has life. More than life. There’s a poignant scene where Jamie tells Kent about his own mother dying of ovarian cancer, and, as Josh films him, Jamie, with a remote, zooms in on himself. Leslie even agrees to help out with the doc. Everything is falling into place and Joshy is getting passed by.
But it’s all a lie. Jamie knew about Kent’s Afghanistan service from the get-go; the Facebook thing was just a front. In fact, Kent was Darby’s friend, not his, and it was Darby’s mom who died of ovarian cancer. And Jamie finding Josh’s first documentary via eBay? Bullshit. Josh was just Jamie’s excuse to get to Leslie. Josh finds out all of this at the 11th hour and then rushes to a black-tie honorarium for Leslie, which Jamie is attending, with the evidence. Except, at Leslie’s table, no one gives a shit. Jamie fesses up, but in a way that minimizes the damage, while Josh is bursting at the seams with the indignity of it all, the lack of integrity. No one else cares. “I think he’s an asshole,” Cornelia says, “but the movie’s pretty good.”
Which is fine. Assholes get ahead. Way of the world.
Except later, outside, she parses it further:
It doesn’t matter if it was rigged. Because the movie isn’t about Afghanistan or Kent. It’s about Jamie.
This is backwards. If the doc is about Kent’s service in Afghanistan, which is real, then how Jamie found him is irrelevant. But if the doc is ultimately about Jamie, then Jamie’s lies do matter. He’s on film talking about his mother dying of ovarian cancer, yet his mother is still alive? He’ll be the James Frey of documentarians; he’ll take Leslie down with him.
“While We’re Young” has some good lines. “It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it.” I like a lot of the issues raised, particularly how cutthroat and opportunistic you have to be to succeed. Charles Grodin is wonderful, as is Naomi Watts in a small, thankless part. But Josh’s angst isn’t interesting angst. It’s obvious what’s wrong with him in the beginning, and it’s obvious his solution to what’s wrong with him (Jamie, youth) is the wrong solution, and the resolution to all of this is both muddied and untrue. I think Noah Baumbach’s a pretty good guy, but his movie’s an asshole.