Tag Archives: english

Review: Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Has there ever been a name as American as Armie Hammer? It is a cartoonish name with inbuilt stars and stripes, the sort of name that insists on a father named Jack and a son called Sledge, a name that behooves a pro-wrestler, a porn-star or a GI Joe action figure. As an actor, the blonde, light-eyed Californian is unsurprisingly remembered from solidly American parts, like that of a cowboy or a moneyed Harvard student.

uncle1Trust recklessly cheeky director Guy Ritchie, therefore, to take this Golden Age superhero and douse him in an Absolut accent, cherry-picking him for the part of a roughnecked Russian. Meanwhile, Henry Cavill, a remarkable specimen of British beefcake, is here made to play an impossibly suave American, as campily as Roger Moore. The Man From UNCLE, based on an old American television show, is thus nothing more than a Cold War themed party, a game of ‘Spy Vs Spy’ the director plays with a quartet of astonishingly attractive actors, taking them swaggering across Europe over a silly, forgettable plot. (This is the film The Tourist should have been.)

Forgettability, as those in the know will attest, is not necessarily a bad thing. As if mesmerised by how spectacular it all is — the cheekbones, the wardrobes, the continent, the cars — Ritchie winds down his usual breakneck pace and gives us a spy movie that looks good in cufflinks — and knows it. It is a pleasant, preposterously frothy bit of summer entertainment with a chilled effervescence that matches the head on a champagne glass. Entirely transient, but ah, such a joy as it flits by. And so damn cool.

The time is 1963, and the American agent Napoleon Solo is being forced to team up with his comrade from across the Iron Curtain, Ilya Kuryakin. The two need to rescue a German girl, Gaby (daughter of “Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist”) and find her father, who might be arming very wrong hands. She’s played by the striking Alicia Vikander and the very wrong hands belong to the very beautiful Elizabeth Debicki, rounding up Ritchie’s exceedingly attractive foursome. Every actor lays on the affectation thickly. Debicki, for example, drapes herself like a carefully discarded mink coat on the top of a light couch where Cavill’s Solo is lying down so that the tranquillisers about to kick in don’t injure his (finely-sculpted) head.

This is a throwback, then, to the Bond films of yore, films where James fussed about his shirt-studs and film looked as colourful as it could: one of Ritchie’s characters even waxes gleefully about the joys of Kodachrome, and “colours so real you can almost taste them.” There is naturally the sexism appropriate to the cinema of that era, though even that is turned nimbly on its head. A delicious scene in a Roman boutique, for example, sees Solo and Kuryakin argue about how to dress Gaby as they go undercover, picking out dress and belt and clutch for her, and she’s the one who is efficiently all business while the two hunks dandily bicker on about whether a Rabanne can — or, indeed, needs to — match a Patou.

The sight gags are perfect — a meeting between two CIA and KGB operatives takes place in a crowded cafe, but at the end of the meeting the entire crowd clears out in pointedly un-neutral fashion — and Ritchie naturally has his fun with wordplay, at one point taking the word Special” from ‘special agent’ and applying it as one would do today, with, say, the ‘special Olympics,’ but one of the things that makes UNCLE such a lark is how finely, funnily tuned the action sequences are, playing out like Tom and Jerry moments shot and assembled via a sophisticated series of close-ups and reflections and comic-booky split-screens. Ritchie’s last few films have lacked spirit, especially the hollow Sherlock Holmes outings, but this is a film that feels drunk with affection.

Naturally a film like this is not everyone’s kind of Bollinger, and there is admittedly much smug indulgence on display. The plot, as warned, is almost entirely superfluous. But ah, there is such pleasure to be found in the small, integral pieces of the flippantly constructed whole: just try saying Debicki’s name Victoria Vinciguerra out loud, like the first two words of a tongue-twister, and not smiling. My jaw hurt from the feature-length grin Ritchie elicited, and it’s good to see him, like Hugh Grant in this film, back at ease. If one must slouch, one best do it hidden by an impressively-cut suit, and The Man From UNCLE is as lovingly tailored as they come. Even if it wears brogues, not Oxfords.

Rating: 3.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, August 28, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under Review

Column: That Sholay coin-toss and the role of chance in storytelling

It is temptingly easy to dismiss the cinematic coin-toss as a bit of chicanery, just another convenient plotting trope. Characters go down one road when they so easily could have strolled down another, and the road they choose is the one picked by the writers, with heads or tails (or neither) doing the rationalising for them.

Yet there is something classically timeless about relying on something so basic, so universal, so instantly echoed around the world — and making it work. The setup is simple, thrown up at will. The trick lies in the consequences; it’s all about sticking the landing. A really good coin-toss is hard to forget.

chigurh1One of the most memorable tossers in all cinema is Anton Chigurh, the villain in No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Played — in an Oscar-winning turn — by Javier Bardem and a jagged-fringed haircut, Chigurh is a nightmarishly calm killer who mows down the innocent, but pauses to flip a coin before it — as if to give them a last glimmer of hope. Or to not take all the credit for their death.

It is hard to imagine McCarthy, that grizzled Pulitzer Prize winner, being inspired by a Batman villain, but Chigurh’s methods do indeed quite mirror those of Two-Face, who has always been more fearsome on the page than the screen, played to cartoonish effect by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever and insipidly by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. Not that these didn’t have precedent; gangsters and mob bosses have tossed coins ever since George Raft started it all in the 1932 Scarface.

The entire act might not be as existential. It could, of course, quite simply be big bad kids toying with their food; a trivial amusement, a flick of thumbnail against coin before the actual ringing of the death knell.

It is also often said that the result of the toss matters less than what one hopes for as the coin is flipping through the air. This is why regardless of heads or tails, some villains end up pulling the trigger anyway.

Less bloodthirsty coin-tossing is par for the course in buddy-movies, often with some nudge-nudge wink-wink sleight of tongue as in Andaz Apna Apna, where Aamir Khan’s Amar hoodwinks Salman Khan’s Prem with a “Heads I win, Tails you lose” toss. By the time the slackjawed Salman figures out he’s actually won, a triumphant Aamir is long gone.

What makes us trust in this random 50:50 toss? The question was most profoundly debated in a 1953 Donald Duck comic where the phenomenon of using a toss to determine all decisions was dubbed ‘Flipism.’ Donald, after meeting the weird Professor Batty who tells him to trust in the coin and follow Flipism, loyally does what the tosses tell him, landing up in a world of trouble and blaming the coin. Yet others are more discreet in their use of the same. It is only at the end of Asimov’s wonderful short story The Machine That Won The War that we learn that the omniscient all-powerful computer wasn’t really being consulted because one of the protagonists had been tossing a coin to make all his final decisions.

Sometimes the coin doesn’t come up heads or tails. In Frank Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes To Washington, for example, the only reason James Stewart’s Mr Smith gets to go to Washington is because a governor is trying to choose a senator between rival candidates Mr Hill and Mr Miller. He tosses a coin which lands on its edge, which leads him to drop both candidates and choose Smith.

sholaycoin2For Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, screenwriters Salim and Javed stole the trick from the underrated 1954 Western, Garden Of Evil, where Gary Cooper and Richard Windmark draw cards to see who will stay back and fight the Apaches pursuing them. Windmark, the ‘winner,’ stays and dies. In Sholay, Jai, played by Amitabh Bachchan — whose coin always comes up heads — stays, saves the day and eventually dies. Jai’s trick coin became the stuff of legend, the kind of thing that films of today would have merchandised like crazy.

What is most notable looking back at Sholay’s screenplay, however, is the fact that because Jai was cheating, it made all the tosses he’d seemingly ‘won’ over the course of the film all choices he had made instead of choices they’d stumbled into out of randomness. Therefore, despite Dharmendra’s Veeru stayin’ alive and getting the girl and the flashier songs, and Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur getting his hard-earned revenge by the final reel, the sequence of coin-based decisions ultimately makes it clear that Jai is the protagonist, the man who chose the way the story winded, and the true hero of Sholay.

And all because of how wisely he used a coin.

~

First published Rediff, August 18, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under Column

Column: Diamonds Are Forever

bellucci1

A column written to celebrate James Bond finally finding himself one helluva woman.

~

“I frequently wince at the word ‘cougar’ because of the way it has been appropriated by the media—like a polite, acceptable term for MILF—but it admittedly helps us look at these agile huntresses allowing for more grace than, say, we do when discussing sugar-daddies seeking blondes. On-top may well be the default position for women based on how naturally they hold relationship reins; their ever-indulgent seductions put fumbling male look-at-me flirtations rightfully to shame. And there is something ineffably sexy about a woman who knows better.”

Page 1: 116_VO_0815 | Page 2: 118_VO_0815

~

First published Vogue, August 2015

Leave a comment

Filed under Column

Review: Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation

That Tom Hollander, he’s come a long way. Back in 2009’s brilliant In The Loop, Hollander played the dumbfounded Simon Foster, a Secretary Of State of some kind and a smalltime MP. Now, in Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation — the fifth film keeping that inflammable Lalo Schifrin theme-tune from the sixties still hot — Hollander has flown up the ranks enough in order to play the Prime Minister of England. Which isn’t to say that he is any less inept.

Nearly everyone, as a matter of fact, in the new Mission Impossible movie, appears significantly dunderheaded with the exception of the all-conquering leading man and — in a rather nice switch — the leading lady (who is, refreshingly enough, not his leading lady). We’ll get to her soon, but let us first deal with the well-cast but often clueless men: there’s Alec Baldwin, every bit the CEO of GE, using words like “salvageable assets” while describing a spy organisation; there’s Jeremy Renner, wearing a well-cut suit and a permanent scowl; there’s Simon Pegg, playing Halo wearing exquisite headphones and, later, doing all the damsel-in-distress screaming a movie can handle; there’s Ving Rhames saying he can handle it (in a thick voice) and then failing to do so; and there’s Sean Harris playing a big cold villain who is basically Blofeld without a monocle — pity, that. He could have used some reflection at the end of this film.

MI2All these men, at various points of the film, look utterly useless. This is obviously by design, since the film is meant to glorify one astounding superstar who can hold his breath for six straight minutes and then carry off, in broad daylight, a shirt only meant to be worn in a nightclub as nefarious as the Viper Room. Tom Cruise is 53, and, having swigged from the elixir of eternal youth, eager to show off the results. He is — in the best sense of the term — an old-school superstar, the sort they don’t make anymore. He’s a cocksure, attractive Hero with one helluva smile who wears his invincibility casually, like a light sports-jacket. Despite the name of the franchise, nothing seems remotely impossible — or even unlikely — for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. He the man.

And — in a move Bond-movies can learn from — she the woman. Rebecca Ferguson plays a crafty double-agent called Ilsa Faust, a woman introduced to us, one must confess, a bit too sexually, but one who promptly throws off the femme fatale stereotype to picks up a sniper-rifle instead. She might look good in heels but she slips ‘em off whenever action calls. (And action presses redial pretty often.) There is a scene where she commands Hunt to take her skyscraper-high shoes off so she can run across rooftops more efficiently, and then, before running, she takes them from him. Throughout this film, she holds her own. Mercifully, there is no romantic subplot to muddy things up.

McQuarrie — who directed the ineffective Jack Reacher but also wrote The Usual Suspects back in the day and, more tellingly, the very cool Cruise-killing Edge Of Tomorrow — was handpicked by the star for the director’s chair. This marks the first time the director isn’t a distinctive stylist, with the four films before this one boasting of Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams and Brad Bird. What sticks in the mind most is De Palma’s dizzyingly complicated but thrillingly sexy first chapter. Yet while McQuarrie might not already have a directing voice per se, this frees him up to go straight for the meat instead of trying to add his own directorial stamp. As a result, the new film is almost entirely free of fat, a lean thriller that is so slick it feels lubricated.

It’s all good, and it looks spectacular. Robert Elswit shoots this film both briskly and beautifully, and a Hitchcock-saluting sequence at the Vienna Opera House borrows from The Man Who Knew Too Much while, using a beautiful vertical panorama shot, nearly triggers vertigo. The action is forever coherent, with special attention being paid to the tinier nuances of the gigantic setpieces. We see Cruise’s cartoonishly pained expression when strapped outside a flying plane, we hold our collective breath when he drifts his car like a boss, and, during an assassination gone wrong, we cut away briefly to see the intended target make a Monty Python joke and brush it off as “just a flesh-wound.”

There is one glitch, though. This Mission Impossible villain is, as said, a pale Blofeld imitation, which automatically makes him a Dr Evil imitation: running a secret organisation and trying to acquire a sum way too small to endanger the world or require the Prime Minister’s retinal scan: in this film we talk about 2.4 billion dollars. It’s not small change, sure, but we all know Avengers 3 will make more than that.

MI1Still, this is a smart, constantly engaging ride which doesn’t spend long on exposition. Much of the shadowy work now looks much better done by day, and stunts are based on ingenuity even more than they are about spectacle. We frequently don’t remember how tall the building was, but do remember sweat falling onto a glove. This fifth instalment might not be as iconic, but it is genuinely compelling. Also, as a bonus in this comic book blockbuster age, you can enter this Tom Cruise film knowing nothing of backstory or mission history, and come out massively entertained.

It’s hard not to be awestruck. The 53-year-old leading man hasn’t self-destructed in five films, and I, for one, can’t wait to see Cruise lunge forth a sixth time. This is his kind of, um, risky business.

Rating: 3.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, August 7, 2015

1 Comment

Filed under Review

Review: Pete Docter’s Inside Out

InsideOut1‘What is your favourite colour?’ I always found that a dashed impossible question. Purple leaps to mind because of how cool and wizardly it is; I’m partial to pretty girls in Yellow; Blue is the colour of ink and jazz and skies; and, like Ferraris, I look best in Scarlet — but then Holly Golightly made us realise how mean Red can be. There truly can be no one favourite colour, merely one best-suited for a moment. It’s as pointless as using one singular feeling to label a moment, a memory, a thought. At every given time, we’re a jumbled up mess, our feelings and emotions questioning and contradicting and second-guessing each other as they jostle for attention — and with Inside Out, Pixar’s latest and arguably finest film, we get a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes.

The film takes place inside the head of a little girl, Riley, an ice-hockey-loving 11-year-old moving with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. But woe is she, for San Francisco puts broccoli on their pizza. Disgust, a green glitter-haired sprite inside Riley’s head is appalled. Alongside her, astride a control bridge, are the red and inflammable Anger, the nerdy purple Fear, the despondent blue Sadness and — leading the pack — the giddily ebullient Joy, bright yellow and impossibly determined to keep Riley happy as can be.

This is a startlingly new landscape, even for the imagineers over at Pixar, and there is tremendous fun in watching these five emotions take turns at making Riley live and feel and react. Joy — voiced by the irrepressibly buoyant Amy Poehler — is an obvious favourite, not least because she looks a bit like Tinkerbell and because her motive is wanting Riley to be happy. So happy, in fact, that Joy chalks out a little circle and asks Sadness to stay within the lines. If you’re astonished by such an elegantly simple metaphor about Repression in an animated film, buckle up: this film goes deep. Significantly, psychologically, educatively deep.

Director Pete Docter has done something absolutely stunning here. Inside Out is certainly a candied Pixar adventure-comedy, wickedly witty and polished till it shines, and yet there is tremendous insight as the film intuitively and evocatingly zigzags through a brain. There are, for example, racks upon racks of bright coloured memories — like a giant gallery of M&Ms — of which some are fading and being forgotten, because of misuse and because they aren’t accessed often enough, but where some peculiar ones — a theme-tune to a gum commercial seen in childhood, say — are frequently tossed into the foreground of the brain, just for the heck of it, where it will persistently rattle around all day. There is Abstract Thought, which dices our characters into Picasso edges, and there is The Subconscious, “where they take all the troublemakers.”

InsideOut2

Inside Riley’s mother’s brain.

Choo-chooing somewhere in the distance is a locomotive, a literal Train Of Thought, and seemingly holding the structure together, formed out of Riley’s core memories, are her Islands Of Personality, themeparks inside her head for the things most important to her: Family, Hockey, Friendship, Honesty and Goofball — the last working well when Riley needs to make monkey-sounds with her parents. Things, naturally, go wrong somewhere near the control panel, and while much can be said about the grand adventure taking place inside Riley’s head — but why give it away? — the most glorious thing about Inside Out is that it meanders away from obvious storytelling and gives us room to think about ourselves. I, for example, caught myself wondering what islands I’d have inside my head. (Despite making a film that necessitates repeat viewings to capture all the multitiered genius of its confections, Docter makes it a point to make us wonder thus, nudging us briefly toward other brains, dog-brains and cat-brains and father-brains and, best of all, a Cool Girl brain, where the emotions eventually confess that “Being cool is so exhausting.”)

Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, is a perfectly nice girl, but the fun characters all lie within her. Joy is almost unbearably bouncy, and Poehler — with her Leslie Knope infallibility in place — nails the crucial balance; Mindy Kaling is sneeringly spot-on as Disgust; Richard Kind is wonderful as Bing Bong, an imaginary friend who cries candy and can “blow a mean nose”; and the film’s most nuanced performance comes from Phyllis Smith, making Sadness so darned irresistible. Inside Out’s crowning achievement may be the parity it achieves, the way it illustrates how one emotion isn’t better than another, that each is important and makes a difference. Why, sometimes you need to heat Anger up just to use it as a weapon. Thus it’s unfair to aim exclusively for happiness. (Could it be the yellow M&Ms don’t taste better than the others after all?)

insideout3A staggeringly original film, Inside Out is a cinematic miracle. There has quite frankly never been anything like it before, and it is an essential film for lovers of the movies, children, parents and inner-children everywhere. It is insightful, intoxicating and incredible, and when I was done with it, scrubbed and sobbed and sated, I felt I’d been scribbled on by Pixar crayons. The detailing is exquisite — Joy, using a french fry to do a pole-vault pauses to lick her salty fingers right after — Michael Giacchino’s music is fantastic, and there is something in the film to speak to each of us. I, for one, was particularly captivated by the sound-stage on which dreams were being produced, like a live television show with scripts and actors and directors… And what critic dare rebuke a film he’d pick over a dream?

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, June 26, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under Review

Column: Why we must start a culture of spoiler-shaming

got1

Like in Game Of Thrones, nobody’s innocent.

We’ve all casually — or intentionally — let out details about what someone else may not have seen or read. Sometimes it’s purely inadvertent, like when an intern once called me up, found out I was watching Top Gun and asked “ooh, is Goose dead yet?,” understandable given I was watching an all-time blockbuster decades after it had come out — but a memory that stings, to this day. Sometimes it’s vindictive, like the popcorn-seller a friend’s father dismissed while watching Jewel Thief back in the 70s, only to have him snarl “Ashok Kumar villain hai” during the interval and ruin said gent’s evening. Sometimes it’s friendly, the desperate urge to high-five over a shocking twist. Sometimes, in the zeal to describe or recommend a film, we reviewers go too far and tell more than we ought — this is a tricky line, indeed — and I remember a daft film where, since nothing made sense at all, I took matters into my own hands and started the review off by revealing the preposterous climax in the hope that readers could perhaps watch the film with the end in mind and, as I explain here, find their own puzzle-solving entertainment.

The fact is that spoilers happen and that we’ve all been guilty — to varying degree — of spilling what we shouldn’t. Or, at the very least, what we ought to be more careful with.

Our behavorial approach to spoilers is outdated. It’s convenient to endorse a caveat emptor method — Let The One Who Watches Later Beware — to say it’s your fault you didn’t watch the baskeball game live and now you’ve exiled yourself to a day without newspapers and sports channels with your fingers crossed, but the fact is that in these over-communicated times, the Sensory Deprivator 5000 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It’s time we started being more considerate.

Exactly one week ago, on the Game Of Thrones season finale, shocking things happened and people died. That could well be a summary for every episode of the show based on George RR Martin’s sprawling fantasy series where leading characters routinely get poleaxed, but this time — more than any other television event I remember — the Internet went freakin’ nuts. This whole week, there have been spoilers everywhere. Twitter, Facebook statuses, even bloody newspaper headlines, all going out of their way to give away huge revelations. Everyone appeared out out to punish the viewer who has a day-job and thus didn’t watch the episode at the crack of dawn Monday morning (the first telecast in India happens simultaneous with HBO in the US, at 6:30 AM our time) and all those who thought they could savour a finale on their own time.

No way. Current social networking behaviour seems to be “You didn’t watch it? Boo hoo, now let me rub these GIFs into your face.” But must we all be such Ramsay Boltons? Is that who we’ve become?

There is something deeply obnoxious about the need to crow about being the first person to have watched a show, seen a film, read a bestseller. We all have the Internet, we all watch stuff, and seeing it first does not equip us with any greater understanding; the head-start isn’t a real head-start. This, by itself, isn’t as problematic, despite the hollow bragging: the main issue lies with the sadistic way we flaunt our latest discoveries instead of letting people discover them on their own.

A television drama is not a sports broadcast and the plot of a movie isn’t a news story; there is just no need to fire up our keyboards to report on fiction as if it’s freshly emerging fact. 

There is a lot to be learnt from readers of George RR Martin’s novel, who experienced the death we are now gasping about in the books four years ago, and yet they have been considerate enough to not rain on our parade but instead let us stagger for ourselves, when our time came.

Do I want to write about the finale, throw in my theories, discuss it with my geekdom? Sure. But I need to write it somewhere two-clicks away where you can come choose to read me — after a clickbaity “You Won’t Believe Which Character Didn’t Really Die” headline, if need be — and I cannot, should not, must not thrust a spoiler in your face, without warning, like an unsolicited dick pic.

And yes, that dick pic — the worst kind of online trollery and harassment — is what I compare the thoughtless spoiler to. As a critic who has routinely been threatened and abused and harassed online for eleven years — before Facebook opened its doors and well before Twitter existed — I know what I’m talking about here. Blankly and ignorantly hurled abuse can hurt, can disconcert, can depress — but it can (and must) also be shrugged off. The worst thing about spoilers is that they come from within the little social substreams we’ve curated for ourselves, they come from ‘our people,’ and — really — do we want to believe that even the little corners of the Internet we make our own are just as obnoxious as say, the commentators on YouTube videos?

There are no rules about this sort of thing. I can file a complaint about a nameless troll harassing me on Twitter, but I can’t call the cops on a smartass making a weak pun about a character’s death and ruining the fact that I was saving up a half-dozen episodes to bingewatch over a weekend. It’s not a crime to give away a spoiler, but it is a rotten thing to do, and I feel we need to police ourselves. Let’s not just groan and move on to the next book or show, in the hopes that this time we’ll watch and read faster. We shouldn’t have to.

Why can’t we all realise that while we really want to discuss something really cool/shocking/unbelievable with someone, there are other people in the room? This is the Internet. There are always other people in the room. Share what you want to on a forum, behind spoiler-warnings, with those who choose to read it and react and have awesome conversations with you about it. Don’t screw up someone else’s day just because you can.

This, then, is a clarion call to start a culture of spoiler-shaming.

We can start by identifying the jerks who are flippantly giving things away, calling them out in public, telling them they’re being jerks — honestly, most of them (us) don’t even know. Often it’s just eagerness to share, to make a worthy GIF, to take our thoughts to the world, to be witty about something that matters to many of us.

But this is when the rest of us need to tap a person — or, indeed, a publication — on the shoulder, and tell them they need to take a post down or delete a tweet or change a headline. We need to inform them that they need to, at the very least, word their thoughts differently because it stings to have something you enjoy ruined for you, and social media does so en masse. A headline or a tweet or a status update should not, in a civil world, be allowed to contain a spoiler. It’s plain rude.

Therefore, I apologise for any such indiscretions on my part in the past, and promise to be far more careful in the future. Like I said, this sickening boorishness might not be intentional, but that is no reason to let it continue unchecked. The rulebook is in our hands, and I say we start by calling out the offenders — and letting them know how offensive they are.

~

First published Rediff, June 22, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under Column

Review: Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young

Ben Stiller will turn 50 this year. Stiller, the zipper-inefficient walk-off winning man of a thousand comedies, is grey at the edges already and getting older — just like us, every single bloody day. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young is about the exhausting inevitability of getting old, sure, but at its profound core, it is also about the potential joy that lies in accepting it. (Charles Grodin, best known for being a VHS-conquering St Bernard lover for the ages, is, in this film, believably all-knowing and wielding tremendous gravitas. Things can indeed turn much better if you allow your prematurely-determined yardsticks to grey right along with you.)

wwy1On the surface, Baumbach’s film is a comedy. It is about a couple in their mid-forties discovering the thrills (and perils) of hanging out with a couple in their twenties, and thus many obvious resulting gags — about the nature of Cool and the evolving meaning of Irony — are promised and delivered, but this film, like some of its protagonists, is superbly deceptive. It is a film where power-giddy young executives eager to embrace Mad Men stylings drink from whiskey tumblers in the daytime — but where the glass is full of apple-juice.

Things begin on an entirely Woody Allenesque note, with fortysomethings Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) struggling with the idea of impulsiveness. We’re still young, Cornelia insists, proclaiming that if they were to drop everything and going off to Paris or Rome tomorrow, they could. This “tomorrow” pricks at Josh, who wonders about last-minute flight prices and thinks they’d need at least a month in advance. A month still counts as impulsive, she says undeterred, mostly talking to herself. It is, as you can see, boilerplate Allen with a very Alexander Desplat-y score thrown in, but this may be to soothe us in before pulling the rug out from beneath our ol’ feet.

Josh is a documentary filmmaker, a fiercely committed artiste who has spent the decade milking a grant to create a film he believes in, a film which is, essentially, “about America.” One day, he bumps into a cool young fan. Jamie (Adam Driver) is an effortlessly stylish youngster with gimmicky ideas and that hipster-y fondness that often mistakes what is old for what is good, and Baumbach makes us wonder if his affection for Josh’s work is genuine, or the same as his love for Rocky III. Jamie and his artisanal ice-cream making wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) start hanging out with Josh and Cornelia and invite them to radically bohemian ceremonies — where people wear white, drink sludgy psychotropic drinks, and vomit to Vangelis — but no matter how much fun they’re having, Jamie and Darby never, ever reach for the check.

This film is thus as much about the inappropriate sense of entitlement of the young — the anything-goes culture, the breakdown of the conventions we older folk take for granted — as it is about the ennui exhibited at any age, really. Two couples sit at dinner and start looking up their smartphones; one of them talks about how it’s awful that one person whips a phone out and suddenly everyone has to look at theirs, but that while it was rude earlier, it’s accepted now. “Like showing your ankles in the 1800s,” he nods, to the loud sound of nobody disagreeing.

The film informatively explores the very idea of documentary filmmaking in an age where everyone is recording what’s around them, poking at the changing relevance of the form and the undeniable shift in the documentary ethic. It is at these points in our culture when meanings are changing that it is hardest to stand straight, and Josh flounders horribly: when two younger men talk about “life” and “other plans,” he reflexively throws out the correct John Lennon quote. But nobody, he sees, realises the importance of what was really said and who said it. It’s all out there, it belongs to everyone. And this scares Josh just like it does many of us, even though his hurried parroting of Lennon wasn’t entirely accurate either.

Stiller is stunning in the film, his brow furrowed with consternation, and mouth half-open in incredulous indignation. This is the man unable to swallow the fact that the joke is now on him, that by rigidly sticking to whatever he believes in he is losing relevance amid both the older-and-wiser and the younger-and-crueller. Stiller, exceptional in Baumbach’s Greenberg a few years ago, attacks this part with a sense of naive righteousness, his Josh believing intent and purity are the same things even as he falls for the bait and buys a hat to blend in. At some point he’s asked if he’s success oriented, and he says “no” while his wife says “totally”, at the exact same beat, with her obviously knowing better. For a moment there we can see heartbreak in his eyes before the grin of denial takes over.

7G5A3393.CR2

Watts, coming off a marvellous performance in Birdman, is one of those actresses who wears the suit of age with such weary believability that it almost masks her beauty — like Claire in Modern Family. And again, because of the cinematic baggage she carries, we begin to buy into Baumbach’s concept of aging: that after more than a dozen years, even one who so gloriously pleasured herself in Mulholland Drive is now relieved to be asked to the party.

Driver is a compelling actor, a distinctively quirky looking chameleon who plays his part in a defiantly unreal way, which makes him great casting for this role where his young auteur doesn’t mind not really being an auteur at all. And Charles Grodin, as mentioned at the head of this review, wears omniscience so, so delightfully, just like he does in TV’s Louie.

It isn’t surprising how funny this film is, or how cleverly it’s written. We’ve come to expect great things from Baumbach who wrote The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and who made the beautiful Frances HaWhile We’re Young is special not for its subversions of mainstream comedic genre — the end features a race against the clock only to realise the whole thing is also just that — but for its almost casual profundity, for the wisdom it carries and, miraculously enough, does so without an air of preachiness. It’s wise enough to know it isn’t wise enough.

This is the first truly great film of 2015. It is a film worth watching and recommending and loving, like a novel you can’t wait to lend to friends you care about. And as the end-credits rolled with Golden Years playing, I realised even David Bowie’s older now. And that doesn’t seem so bad. Just look at Woody Allen.

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, May 1, 2015

Leave a comment

Filed under Review