I always look forward to Noah Baumbach's movies, even if I don't always like them. In any event, they always have an effect on me, a point I tried to make in the review of Baumbach's new movie, "While We're Young," that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription:
Noah Baumbach is one of those auteur writer-directors who insists on taking you someplace personal. It might not be a place of your liking – for me, it often is NOT – but it’s almost always going to be someplace squeamishly memorable.
And it usually involves families. His 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” explores the effects of divorce on a pair of brothers. 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding” features a woman ripping apart any vestige of intimacy with her sister. In 2010, Baumbach gave us “Greenberg,” which features a uniquely self-absorbed character – played by Ben Stiller – who, while house-sitting for his brother, trashes every relationship he encounters.
And now we have “While We’re Young,” Baumbach’s newest offering – again starring Stiller – and watching it left me more squeamish than ever. In short, “While We’re Young” explores the life of 40-something couple Josh and Cornelia – Stiller and Naomi Watts – whose staid, childless, middle-class existence in Brooklyn has become a bit predictable. Maybe even boring.
Certainly, Josh has regrets. Years of work on a documentary film has resulted in a six-and-a-half-hour cut that he doesn’t know how to finish. And he won’t accept help, especially from his father-in-law (played by Charles Grodin), an internationally renowned documentary filmmaker whose success Josh clearly envies. Cornelia and Josh – well, maybe Cornelia but certainly Josh, in more ways than one – feel stuck.
Then they meet Jamie and Darby, a 20-something couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, and things begin to look up. Cornelia and Josh, but especially Josh, feel rejuvenated. And instead of hanging out with their old friends, who have recently become first-time parents and are occupied with all the mess that baby-raising entails, they gradually slip into the hipster life: roller-blading, listening to music on vinyl, wearing a porkpie hat, taking a hip-hop dance class, etc.
Jamie, of course, is a filmmaker, too, though he has a much more youthful – read: clueless – style that is virtually devoid of substance. Until, that is, he gets advice from Josh and – maybe more important – producing help from Cornelia … and her dad.
When it comes, the film’s obligatory crisis involves mostly Josh. And this might make sense, and I might have cared, if I felt anything for him. But while nowhere near the jerk that, say, Stiller’s “Greenberg” character is, his Josh does little to warrant sympathy. He’s blind to his own faults, lashes out at those who want to help him, is desperate in his attempts to be something he isn’t and insists that just by doing what he thinks is right he deserves success. In other words, while Jamie might be clueless about style, Josh is clueless about life.
Baumbach deserves credit for putting talented actors to good use. Watts, Grodin and Driver – so good on the HBO show “Girls” – stand out here. And some critics are hailing “While We’re Young” as Baumbach’s break-through effort.
For me, though, viewing it was like enduring two hours of painted nails scraping a retro-hipster’s blackboard.