Having reached an age where he is either “wistful or disdainful” but perhaps overly serious about his second now-very-long-term documentary film project, Josh (Stiller) – along with his producer wife Cornelia (Watts) – suffers the pangs of early middle-age. In the absence of children, their investments of choice include good wines and the intellectual return on getting enough sleep. Then they meet the much younger Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried). Jamie also makes documentaries. Darby makes…ice cream. Together, they make Josh and Cornelia feel a lot younger. Soon, vintage racing bikes and shamanistic purges are edging out the early arthritis. But as documentaries – and in some cases, really good fiction films – will show, things are always more complex than they appear.
Baumbach’s ironically sweet touch in While We’re Young should be fresh in our minds from Frances Ha – although his move to big-name actors and a more understated camera creates a contrast to that earlier film’s mockumentary aesthetic. But Baumbach’s choices are clearly deliberate, exploiting a conventional paradigm to explore the ethical issues hidden in the interplay of documentary and fiction. Don’t all stories inevitably reflect the teller’s perspective? And shouldn’t the real questions be: how honest should you be about this – and how do aesthetics influence the appearance of authenticity?
Watts, Driver and Seyfried but in particular Stiller are perfectly cast as people sifting ambition, exploitation, status and morality. The script does a great job of presenting these conundrums almost playfully, with sparkling and often hilarious dialogues on middle-aged ambitions, the loss of cultural innocence and its rediscovery transposed into Stiller’s very physical style of acting and offset by Watts’ poise. Has Baumbach joined the mainstream? Expedient or not, the move is fully justified by the result as While We’re Young jumps neatly across the generational divide, tackling issues that should concern anybody on either side of the screen with light, masterful assurance.
While We’re Young | Directed by Noah Baumbach (USA 2014) with Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver. Starts July 30.
Originally published in issue #140, July/August 2015.