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.)
On 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, Corneila 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.
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 Ha. While 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