Monday, November 9, 2015

While We're Young

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 2014)

Baumbach, mellowing into middle age, has become more willing to mix things up.  While We're Young is notably less astringent than his previous outings (with the exception of the similarly breezy Frances Ha), and he samples from a long menu of styles and techniques.   This approach winds up being unstable and occasionally discordant, but it remains enjoyable throughout.  The film contains: at least one cheesy montage, a few stabs at broad, silly humor, a side-plot involving deception and amateur forensics, some strikingly earnest deliberations on ethics and politics, Baumbach's usual sharp wit and deft satire, bland lay-sociology, compassionate ruminations on aging and love, to name most, but not all of the ingredients.  So yes, it gets a little messy.  To keep the tonal inconsistencies from swamping the experience, Baumbach wisely keeps things going at a brisk trot, occasionally bursting into a gallop.

Stiller does his usual tetchy thing, and Naomi Watts is great as the confused by ultimately more stable member of the marriage.  But let's spare a word for the usually excellent Adam Driver.  I've thought highly of him since first seeing his work (it might've been in Girls) and I still think he's an actor of remarkable originality and undeniable charisma.  But he's always balanced on the knife-edge of mannerism, and here, he teeters over into it.  Knowing that Driver is capable of better, I'll blame this on Baumbach.  The intention is clear enough: Driver's Jamie is something of a con man, and we catch on far more quickly than Stiller's Josh, who's taken in by Driver's exuberance and flattery.  But the performance goes too far, and Driver seems isolated and self-conscious, mugging and flailing like a far lesser actor.  Still, he's entertaining to watch, and very funny in some scenes, which ought to be a tribute to his talent.  There's a host of other supporting players, all fine, particularly Charles Grodin as Josh's disapproving father-in-law and occasional bête noire.

There's a temptation I'll admit to resisting, because it wouldn't be fair, to dismiss much of the While We're Young's action (and by extension, the film) as another compendium of First World Problems.  While the subject of money comes up from time to time, there's never any real economic uncertainty in the characters' lives (at least none that can't be easily mollified), and they coast through the New York that exists for the rich and the almost-rich like tourists through Times Square.  But it still seems to require a mention.  The problem is that the New York of (most) movies is becoming increasingly illusory, increasingly at odds with the reality of plutocracy and segregation (both of class and of race, in some cases).  And New York is emblematic of the country at large, a perennial mythological land that exemplifies the American Dream, however one interprets that trope.  Buambach, for all of his intelligence, seems unaware of just how bogus this mythology has become.   He does include some glances towards the deeper socio-economic issues that distantly surround the lives of the characters: war, poverty, mental illness, political dysfunction (Josh's long-gestating documentary project is purportedly about these very issues.)  The director clearly knows that his characters live in a bubble, but its a bubble he knows from the inside as well as the outside.  Thus, his satire is blunted by his sympathy with certain aspects of upper-middle class complacency.  This is frustrating precisely because we all know how dyspeptic he can be.  Is this mellowing, then, a weakness?  I'm not entirely sure.  The last shot lends a certain touch of ambivalence, a welcome gravity, even if it's presented as humor.  Baumbach is nothing if not nimble, and it might take another film or two to see if he still knows how to aim his ire at a worthy target.  In the meantime, his gentle ribbing has its charms. 

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