While We're Young (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

While We’re Young (2015)

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Cornelia and Josh just want to have a kid.  Their careers have stalled and tragedy has struck multiple times in their attempts.  But when the young filmmaker Jamie and his girlfriend Darby come into the lives of Cornelia and Josh it presents an opportunity to reclaim that spirit of youth.  Noah Baumbach writes and directs While We're Young and stars Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, and Adam Driver.

Wishin' we was what we wasI love this new phase of Noah Baumbach’s career.  Right up through Greenberg, it seemed he was going to be a somewhat cynical filmmaker and focus on the drawbacks of being intelligent, awkward, and uncertain about the future.  Based on the continued optimism present in While We’re Young, it seems Baumbach has stepped back from the pessimistic precipice of age and with fresh eyes looked at what a battered but wise frame can offer.

There are some drawbacks to this wisdom.  While We’re Young isn’t Baumbach’s funniest film, which it seems will now and forever be Kicking and Screaming, but what laughs emerge from the dialogue come from tentative steps into old age.  We don’t get quips about Maya Angelou or what it’s like to lose a foot, but jokes which come from a sort of weary resignation that your past can be someone’s fuel for the present.  What keeps While We’re Young from potentially being a self-pitying slog is that the challenges of growing older aren’t presented as something where we get stuck in our ways, but can change right up until the moment we go into the grave.

Really this is just an extension of the same philosophy which drove Frances Ha, but with Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts forming a warm and overtly conflicted center.  The way they play it out is one of the richest portrayals of aging couples in recent years.  There’s a cautious but loving vibe to the way Stiller and Watts alter their body language around one another, and from Watts’ coy downward glancing smiles to Stiller’s nervous looks over to her as he speaks it’s clear they are still in love.  When they argue neither Stiller nor Watts goes out of control such as a young couple might.  They raise their voices but never scream, and always leave a bit of emotional space for the other to either respond or retract, and this makes their conversations less predictable than the normal rom-com fare.  Even before we are provided expositional details about their relationship, we know that whatever they've been through keeps them loving each other even when things are strained.

Josh becomes a child to someone old enough to be his child in one of the more complex situations of While We're Young.

Josh becomes a child to someone old enough to be his child in one of the more complex situations of While We're Young.

Baumbach’s screenplay provided crucial direction in this regard.  There are several conversations about Cornelia’s (Watts) trouble getting pregnant, having had two miscarriages previously.  The tragedy isn’t played up for more drama, but instead written as a nagging fear which continues to eat away at Cornelia as she grows older.  She doesn’t have a tearful breakdown, but instead forms a similarly close bond to the young couple Josh (Stiller) befriends and looks at them with a complicated longing.  Not only are the younger couple as old as Cornelia’s potential children might have been, but they are also at a sexual peak she knows Josh is still capable of.

This makes each scene a more complex exchange of desires than we typically see.  Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) are potential sexual partners, children to guide, and, paradoxically, peers to look up to.  Baumbach’s screenplay makes the younger couples’ desire less complicated, but that’s one of the subtle points about age.  It’s easy to get passionate about one specific thing and ignore others when you’re young.  As we age it’s more important to attain a balance, as shown by an older couple who Cornelia and Josh start to ignore.

Baumbach ties this up in direction which may be his most subtle.  I love the way the complicated relationship between all four is visualized in Jamie and Darby’s loft.  Cornelia holds kittens while looking happy and sad and Josh watches a pantsless young woman climb down the ladder with a look of confusion and intrigue.  Then when Cornelia is suddenly overcome by anxiety in a sea of mothers and newborns, she escapes to a hallway surrounded with an alphabet soup of gibberish on the wall.  It’s so easy to understand what they’re thinking in these moments, and Baumbach extends his empathy to them by grounding his images in their confusion, frustration, and delight.

Watts is stellar in these moments of absolute confusion where Baumbach surrounds her with the reality of having an infant.

Watts is stellar in these moments of absolute confusion where Baumbach surrounds her with the reality of having a baby.

Which brings us to that title, While We’re Young, which is more complicated than simply saying Cornelia and Josh want a child while they’re young.  It’s also a moral compass, and things we allowed ourselves to get away with as we age, as shown by the younger couple.  There’s the idea that “young” has become so broad thanks to medical advances and specifically tied to material consumption, as wonderfully illustrated in what I’ll refer to as the “everything old is new” montage.  But then there’s Cornelia and Josh’s older friends, who may be mired in responsibilities as well, but still know how to have fun and keep their lives changing.

For all the complexity of the character arrangements and desires, While We’re Young still isn’t perfect.  There’s a great subplot going on about the way documentaries tell the truth while lying but is resolved in an unsatisfyingly direct way.  I also wish some of the appropriation issues were touched upon, as this is a very white film and considering the ongoing conversation about leftist politics I figured Baumbach would not let the appropriation of hip-hop go without comment.  Seyfried, especially, feels underserved by the screenplay, as she ends up a willing toy for both Jamie and Josh throughout the film.

Even with those reservations, they are handled in an uncommonly mature way.  How often does a character kiss someone who isn’t their spouse and follow up that mistake with a conversation about why that happened, and why it won’t happen again?  Not often, and certainly not with the degree of insight and humor Baumbach brings to the screen.  While We’re Young acknowledges each journey into old age is complicated enough without adding unnecessary details.  We’re just trying to work it out, and find some hope that Cornelia and Josh will.

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Tail - While We're YoungWhile We're Young (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Noah Baumbach.
Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, and Adam Driver.

Posted by Andrew

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