Mumblecore, the ‘00s movement/trend in American DIY filmmaking which favoured improvised, subtle melodramas and a low-key aesthetic, began and ended with a ‘Ha’. Kicking off with Andrew Bujalski’s 2002 low-budget debut Funny Ha Ha, an awkward and meandering character study of post-collegiate anxiety and arrested development, Mumblecore was provided 10 years later with its end-point and ultimate masterpiece in Frances Ha.
In Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to that film, While We’re Young, there is a scene in which a documentary filmmaker, Josh (Ben Stiller) is having a business meeting with a cocky young financier to secure a grant, needed to complete a sprawling and troublesome film that he’s been working on for ten years. The young financier drinks what looks like whiskey: “Have you seen Mad Men?” he asks, tittering and nodding at the glass in his hand. “It’s actually Apple Juice” the financier assures. “Or is it!… No it is… no, actually it’s straight-up whiskey”.
Is it apple juice or is it whiskey? Does it even matter? So what if the guy’s pretending to drink whiskey – It’s funny, whimsical, retro, subversive – but wait a minute, isn’t it annoying that this kid gets to look the part – leaning casually on his desk, nursing a tumbler of Scotch – without having to endure the uncomfortable burning of strong alcohol as it touches his throat? Isn’t it actually dishonest – isn’t this guy a poser, a fraud?
This is the dilemma that confronts Josh as he and his wife Cornelia’s (played by Naomi Watts) mid-forties identity crisis is compounded when they become friends with Brooklyn bohemian couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Josh and Cornelia are initially enchanted and revitalised by their younger and quirkier new best friends, who take spontaneous walks down subway tracks, hang out at hipster block parties and gorge on media that was once-unremarkable but now apparently revered – VHS and Vinyls that have taken on new meaning and been restored as cult.
As Josh wrangles with this curiously alarming post-post-post-modernism, one can be forgiven for thinking that While We’re Young is not actually about age – at its centre, the main conflict is the idea of sincerity vs. irony and the struggle with authenticity. When Jamie (Adam Driver, who is again majestic, on his way to inevitable super-stardom) begins to reveal a cynical careerist mentality underneath all the playful aloofness, Josh’s illusion and temporary sabbatical from conventional middle-aged married life is shattered, and the quirks that once reinvigorated him now infuriate him (such as the sight of a bowl of Oreos on a table at an adult house party).
Baumbach (himself 45-years-old) has stated in several interviews that he identifies more, in fact, not with the main character Josh – but with Jamie and his engaged, youthful passion and casual ambition – and when Ben Stiller’s character becomes more demented and obsessed in his misanthropic contempt for kids today/hipster culture, you do start to wonder who the real antagonist of the film is.
With Josh’s (and Baumbach’s) bourgeoise standing, the unfinished documentary that has tormented him for a decade is a some sort of guilt-shedding attempt to create a critique of social hegemony, and what Baumbach himself does is reveal through Josh and Jamie the competition and individualism that bubbles beneath the surface of not only friendship and ‘bromance’, but also of (faux)parent-child rivalries. This latter device is exemplified by Josh’s relationship with his father-in-law (comedy veteran Charles Grodin, who’s brilliant here) a respected documentarian who offers another dimension to the generation gap conflict and works incredibly well with Stiller in the film’s most poignant scene.
With a hilarious centre-piece – a New Age Shaman ritual in which middle-classers engage in straight-faced philosophical discussions while vomiting in buckets – along with a comforting, constant stream of sniggers throughout, Baumbach has made another tight film, and as we saw in Frances Ha’s delightful opening, he can montage like no other. But where the film gains a sense of almost dystopian black comedy in its confrontational nature, it sacrifices a bit of humanism – this may have been counteracted by the two wives of the film, who are unfairly shunned somewhat by the script – Watts and Seyfried offer more nuance and depth than their male counterparts, and it’s a shame their characters weren’t given a bit more development and attention.
Baumbach’s probably sick of hearing it by now, but his new film all but cements his place as the new Woody Allen, and confirms that The Squid and the Whale was no singular homage. As a follow up to Frances Ha – it is more brash and more intently – despite the usual touches of awkwardness and the delightfully cumbersome rhythm that complements the angst. Overall, a very strong addition to the director’s collection.
Dir: Noah Baumbach
Scr: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried
Prd: Noah Baumbach, Eli Bush, Lila Yacoub
DOP: Sam Levy
Music: James Murphy
Run time: 97 mins
While We’re Young is on theatrical release now.