In our memoir-obsessed and “reality”-infused culture, the search for autobiographical details and correlating avatars in the works of filmmakers who create personal (or Personal, or “personal”) works is a temptation we should be able to resist, and rarely can. The image of neurotic writers gleefully mining their own lives for raw material is one so deeply entrenched that it dies hard, even if it’s ultimately a reductive lens through which to approach the work. All of this is a long way of getting around to saying that I’ve seen Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young, and it’s got me weirdly worried about him.
Here’s why: Baumbach tells the story of Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a pair of reasonably satisfied New York documentarians (he directs, she produces). While teaching a seminar, Josh meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a freewheeling married couple in their 20s, and is immediately taken by them. Jamie’s also something of a documentarian, but they both do a million things; they live on the verge of poverty but aren’t bothered by it, dedicating themselves to creativity and openness and trying new things. Josh and Cornelia, feeling those qualities slipping away, are reinvigorated by their new, young friends. She goes to hip-hop dance class. He buys a fedora and a bike. They go to purging ceremonies and help Jamie make his documentary. “I’m so selfish and proud,” Josh tells his new friend. “I wanna be generous, like you.”
Now, stop that synopsis for just a moment, and consider this. Baumbach’s last collaboration with Stiller, Greenberg, was made when Baumbach had just turned 40. On that film, he met Greta Gerwig, then in her mid-20s; they began both a personal and professional relationship. Together, they wrote (and he directed, and she starred in) Frances Ha and Mistress America — two films far sunnier than his rather (entertainingly and compellingly!) sour previous pictures, Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding. One might even say that his interactions and collaborations with Gerwig have made him more… open and generous.
It doesn’t seem a stretch to note that this fictional story of a filmmaker in his 40s who is energized by his relationship with a younger muse seems at least mildly inspired by Baumbach’s real life. And that’s where this thing gets tricky. (Mild spoilers follow.) Slowly, as these things do, Jamie’s façade of purity begins to crack. He doesn’t seem quite as selfless as he did, first in matters small (the way Josh always ends up grabbing the check becomes a juicy running joke), then much larger. He’s a guy who values honesty, yet seems deeply dishonest. He values connection, but manipulates those connections. And ultimately, poor, disappointed Josh realizes that purity and openness may be little more than a pose, an adoptable (and adaptable) persona.
Baumbach, it must be noted, wrote this film solo, without the seemingly idealistic spirit of Gerwig, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that its point of view is so much more cynical than those of their collaborations. But what does it say about him (as, at the very least, a storyteller) that this is where his presumptions and prejudices go? If he was ultimately reinvigorated by, to paraphrase the Master Builder quote that opens the film, “opening the door” to the “younger people,” why aren’t Josh and Cornelia? Why do those young people have to end up just as conniving and “success-oriented” as they are?
The answer, I would imagine, is that finding inspirational people to guide you and then living happily ever after isn’t the most excitingly dramatic narrative arc for a motion picture, and perhaps the most reasonable assumption is that Baumbach’s own life and experiences may have provided the germ for the story, but not the message. And there is much in it for people of around his age (that’s all I’ll cop to: being around his age) to relate to, from the resistance to the physical elements of aging (“I know what traditional arthritis is…,” Stiller tells his doctor, pressing for the other, younger version he must have) to the insipidness of yuppie (specifically, Brooklyn yuppie) baby culture to the spot-on contrast between the way the analog/digital split has reversed itself, with the younger couple enjoying their VHS tapes and typewriters and vinyl.
While We’re Young is filled with sharp little touches like that; it’s a very funny movie, and a beautifully cast one (in addition to the aforementioned leads, Adam Horovitz and especially Charles Grodin shine in perfectly realized supporting roles). And the emotional and intellectual place Stiller’s Josh finally arrives at is admirable and vital—it comes down to accepting one’s self, one’s age, and one’s flaws. “Is that ‘old man talk’? Maybe it is,” he tells Jamie, in a key confrontation. “I am an old man.” But there’s an odd, almost Sorkin-esque quality to the skeptical way Baumbach has to regard and reduce everyone around his protagonist (and, perhaps, himself) to get him to that point.
While We’re Young is out tomorrow in limited release.