Sean K. Cureton

The Qaudragenarian Milieu

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on April 25, 2015 at 11:45 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

While We’re Young
Directed Noah Baumbach
3 out of 4 stars

Ever since his 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach has been a writer and director of the independent film scene who has become seemingly indebted to the spirit of his early, adolescent exuberance, equal parts somber melodrama and precocious ennui. Baumbach’s adolescence is thoroughly American in films like Kicking and Screaming, where a troupe of post-college liberal arts majors bemoan the dawn of adulthood, whining despite belonging to the indisputably luxuriant echelon of the white, upper-middle class, and in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale’s gentrified depiction of 1980’s Brooklyn, where the white intelligentsia reigns supreme yet again amid the cold drafts of higher education and the metropolitan life style. Remarkably, Baumbach has not so much left the pedestal of the cultural illuminati in his most recent film, While We’re Young, but he has seemingly reached a point where his respective privilege has been more fully acknowledged. While his new feature is still as self-reflective as ever, its characters are more willing to accept the inherent immaturity of self-obsession, Greenberg’s central dilemma of narcissism finally overcome. Baumbach has long been a main stay of sad, rich, white people, but with While We’re Young the director seems willing to engage with his detractors in a manner that proves reflective of the parody he has always engaged in, only this time around his characteristic infantilism is appropriately engaged from the vantage point of adulthood, well earned or not.

In what is only Baumbach’s second partnership with comic actor and director Ben Stiller, While We’re Young offers a dramatic glimpse of its central protagonist that’s more generous and revealing than what was offered in Greenberg. Where Greenberg was regressively involved in its thematic pretentions at recapturing the innocence of youth, Baumbach is a little wiser in While We’re Young, appearing to have emerged from his partnership with Frances Ha’s Greta Gerwig in 2012 in search of a narrative more befitting to his middle age. While Gerwig may have been the break out star of Greenberg, catapulting her onto the landscape of Baumbach’s Frances Ha as his muse and life partner, her lithe ingenuity and peculiar gaze are of a generation a decade and a half divorced from Baumbach’s adult maturity. Frances Ha is a light hearted, art house treat, but due to its subject’s temporal distance from her voyeur, it is a film that holds more weight in Gerwig’s central performance; the film’s success has little to do with Baumbach’s direction, save in its vampiric desire to recapture the vitality of youth vicariously. Gerwig may be the apple of Baumbach’s eye, but it is among his peers that he truly shines as a storyteller, Ben Stiller the perfect stand in for Baumbach’s autobiographical, middle aged intellectual still gripped by the passions of an idealism thoroughly sophomoric.

Which is largely why While We’re Young is such a breath of fresh air after Frances Ha. If Baumbach’s single-minded obsession with his romantic paramour is sycophantic, then While We’re Young is comparatively self-reflective and open-minded in its self-deprecation and lacerating wit. Stiller’s earned maturity as a comic performer bleeds into the very fabric of the film, his character’s self-defeating ambition as a documentary filmmaker locked in a decade long loop of post-production on his second feature is tragically humble and endearing, Stiller’s everyman shtick the perfect prop for Baumbach’s precocious melodrama. In Greenberg, we saw Baumbach through Stiller raging against the machine that is middle aged sober contentment. In While We’re Young, the director seems more willing to entertain the notion that he is no longer of an age with the post-college milieu that has so long sustained his creative energies, even if Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried’s millennial hipsters appear to hold the secret to eternal youth at a glance.

In 1995, countercultural rebellion and adolescent angst fueled Baumbach’s cinematic output, his debut feature Kicking and Screaming born of the twenty-something stagnation of the mid 1990’s, the decade wherein Baumbach came of age. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Baumbach struggled to find a voice for his thirty-something years, Mr. Jealousy and Highball largely forgettable and held in disdain by their director, their attempts at recapturing the innocence of Kicking and Screaming cheap and imitative. In 2005, a full decade after Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale saw Baumbach reminiscing on his adolescence yet again; Jesse Eisenberg’s confrontation with Jeff Daniels’ bigoted patriarch a further autobiographical diversion that still feels perfectly distilled, its fictitious depiction of Baumbach’s upbringing informative of a creative talent still in the midst of coming towards an appreciative understanding of his own father’s withheld affection and praise. Then came 2007’s Margot at the Wedding depicting its characters approaching middle age with anger, denial, and remorse, the film’s intensity via hyperrealism a little too cold, paving the way for the intimacy that came in Greenberg in 2010, and that which finally evolved into While We’re Young, a film that is just as concerned with a shared, cultural adolescence as ever, only this time around Baumbach has finally admitted that he is no longer a club member. Stiller’s climactic admission of being an old man is therapeutically effective, as it reveals a Noah Baumbach finally capable of moving beyond himself creatively in what is his most cohesive work yet, the film a post-modern take on the coming of age comedy as enacted by characters in a state of well known rebellion that they are finally capable of setting aside in order to age gracefully, Baumbach finally coming to terms with middle age in his stereotypical, adolescent fashion.

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