What’s the Matter with Kids Today???
DIRECTED BY NOAH BAUMBACH/2015 (U.S. release)
For the blu-ray release of the movie Blow-Out, forty-something filmmaker Noah Baumbach interviewed the director of that film, Brian De Palma, many years his senior. The interview went for over an hour, despite the fact that at a glance, the popular works of Baumbach and DePalma are almost entirely dissimilar.
The question might be broached: What has a trending, cued-in filmmaker like Baumbach (or us) have to gain from a passed-his-prime controversial visual stylist and controlled appropriator such as De Palma? A closer look just beneath the surface of his work tells the story. As loose, fresh and cutting as any given Baumbach film might be, (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Frances Ha) there are, just as in the work of his contemporary and sometimes collaborator Wes Anderson (The Fantastic Mr. Fox), fingerprints of a smart film history. There is influence.
It’s all about aging and the ennui of the plugged-in forty-something Americans still so unsure of who they are, and forever uncomfortable with who’ve they’ve become.
The latest film from Noah Baumbach is a pack of roving dichotomies: Overstuffed yet satisfying; resonant yet breezy; cynical yet soft. Or as Ben Stiller’s documentarian character is trying to achieve, intellectual yet materialist. (“Have you seen the cardboard slipcase for this Wilco CD??”, asks supporting player and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz) While We’re Young, a comedy with pathos, never feels confused with itself, at least not inappropriately so. This, even as it takes a few unanticipated detours.
It’s all about aging and the ennui of the plugged-in forty-something Americans still so unsure of who they are, and forever uncomfortable with who’ve they’ve become. (All Baumbach specialties.) Success, stature, and feigned stability be damned, those grey hairs are well earned. The pack of socially displaced post-collegiates in Baumbach’s 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming muse on what they’ll be like in twenty years, at age forty-two. Look no further, fellas. Or better yet, look in the mirror – you’re there now. Are are so many of us…
At one point, a smart-mouthed doctor tells Stiller he has arthritis. He reacts to the news just as any of us would, or have – shocked denial. And somehow, it’s funny. Arthritis is one of those things that isn’t allowed to change anything, yet everything is changing. It’s these moments that make this film most worthwhile. But the rest of it is pretty good, too. This is Stiller at his least annoying.
A cultural platitude we like to remind ourselves of is that the young have a lot to offer to the aged. Their spirit, their perspectives, can be oh-so-refreshing. While We’re Young starts there. Actually, it starts with childless forty-something couple Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts awkwardly struggling through a screaming baby’s fit. They have no idea – no idea – what to do. This short-lived infant moment is but the first of many clueless encounters they will have with the young.
When Stiller and Watts’ friends start having babies and acting like the doting coo-cooing parents that they’ve become, they stumble into a strange new relationship with a hipper-than-thou twenty-something couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. The movie wastes no time demonstrating the dichotomies between the two couples, either. Where Stiller and Watts are tethered to their phones and blankly click through Apple TV watching nothing at all, Driver and Seyfried (and whoever else is sacked out at their cozy vinyl-stocked dive) thoughtfully select which old VHS movie they will enjoy.
This is Stiller at his least annoying.
But, upon closer inspection, or at least upon a bit more time spent in the seemingly freer and carefree world of the twenty-somethings, a heavy flakiness becomes apparent. But not just flakiness – that by itself might be okay, or at least tolerable. No, While We’re Young, in its second half, can’t resist getting plotty about certain people’s motives, and why they might really be “friends”. And this is also when it gets a little plodding. Suddenly, Noah Baumbach is doing conspiracy unraveling.
It has to do with the fact that Watt’s dad is a celebrated documentary filmmaker ala Maysles or Pennebaker (played by a very welcome Charles Grodin). Never mind that Stiller is also an established documentary filmmaker in the film, and Driver is also a newfangled documentary filmmaker, a big fan of the previous two. For a movie full of documentary filmmakers, there actually isn’t that much documentary making going on in the film. What matters is that Stiller has overthought his project into oblivion, whereas Driver’s work is so frivolous, it wants to blow away. At least, at first. Somehow, by the end, While We’re Young is nothing less than a hipster All About Eve, copping a bit from Broadcast News, to boot.
This wouldn’t be the first time Baumbach has lifted recognizable aspects from other films. The most celebrated, perhaps most memorable moment of Frances Ha is the moment of Frances dancing up the street joyously to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”. But it turns out that that entire moment was from an early film by French filmmaker Leos Carax, The Night is Young. In it, his frequent leading man Denis Lavant beats Greta Gerwig to the routine by a good two and a half decades. When Lavant does it, it becomes something primal. But the camera angle and movement are alarmingly similar.
But, “alarming” nothing. Brian DePalma built a great career on his oft-questioned homages to Alfred Hitchcock, some of which play out to feature length. Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, some of those films, such as the glossy baroque Dressed to Kill and Body Double, were truly alarming. Baumbach’s Frances Ha and While We’re Young are comedies. Comedies, though, that don’t let any of their characters off the hook. The smart ones have a sense of history. Look closely, and you might even see a hint of De Palma glossiness in While We’re Young.
When Frances Ha played as part of the New York Film Festival several years ago, Brian De Palma was spotted in the audience. He was there, no doubt, to glean what he could from the work of his cohort and Criterion Collection interviewer. Indeed, it’s good to see that benefiting from the experience of other generations is a two way street. While We’re Young has a different story tell. But it too is satisfying… if a little familiar.